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Former Aon CIO June Drewry Recalls the Challenges of 9/11

June Drewry, currently a semi-retired executive coach for Treeline Consulting LLC and formerly global CIO of both Chubb and Lincoln National Financial Services during her career, was global CIO insurance/reinsurance broker Aon when the 9/11 attacks occurred. Her offices were at the company's Chicago headquarters, and she happened to be in the U.K. on Sept. 11. However, Aon had 1,100 employees based at the World Trade Center, and while the firm wasn't the hardest hit of tenant companies, 176 of its people were killed that day. Drewry talked with Insurance & Technology about the events of the day and how things have changed in its aftermath.

When news of the attacks reached Britain, Drewry was in a now-forgotten hotel near Heathrow, attending a meeting of Aon's global IT heads, including the top technology people from the U.S.

"Somebody got an emergency cell phone call and left the meeting," Drewry recalls. "They came back in and pulled me out and told me. We then all went to the nearest television and watched events unfold, like everyone else." "When I saw the second plane hit, I remember turning to the guy next to me and saying, 'We are now at war,'" Drewry says. "It was an incredible, sobering thought: we are living through a war on our own territory. Now, things that happen that might have infuriated you in the past are seen from a different perspective. It changed context."

The immediate concern in the wake of the event was communication, Drewry notes. Very few people had BlackBerrys in those days, and cell phone infrastructure was overloaded.

"I think 9/11 was one of the biggest pushes over the edge in terms of Blackberries beng accepted, because everyone went to them," She says. "That and the Internet were all we had -- we lost our traditional means of communication."

Business continuity/disaster recovery planning kicked in, but it wasn't about the business, Drewry insists. "It was about finding people, not about getting transactions back online. You had those plans and they were working, but the concern was about the whereabouts and welfare of people and what we could do to help. There's a 'pie-in-the' sky notion that you'll need everything right away, with no appreciation of what you will be doing in the event."

"In a disaster, there are few applications you need immediately, and there's an expense to providing them," Drewry continues. "You need to think about what is a reasonable time to have operations back up-and-running, and that will differ between companies."

Aon's head of IT operations was on the phone with partners Dell and IBM within seconds of the news and placed orders for desktops and laptops correctly assumed to be lost.

"It was a matter of 'a thousand of this, 500 of that,'" Drewry says. "Our vendors wee incredible partners during the crisis, jumping orders to the top of the list for those of us affected by the attacks."

Aon's casualties, and those of other firms might have been much higher if it weren't for the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, an incident involving a truck bomb exploding in the basement garage of the North Tower. The attack failed in its objective to bring the Twin Towers down, but it killed six people and injured over 1,000.

"People who had been present at the earlier bombing didn't wait to be told to leave," observes Drewry. "Out of about 1,100, 925 got out."

However, there were also those who declined to evacuate. Aon's technology heads at the meeting in Britain had a conference call link to colleagues at the World Trade Center as the first Tower collapsed. "You heard in the background, 'I'm going to stay and continue until we're told to evacuate," Drewry recollects. "It wasn't very long before the line went dead."

Drewry's leadership team soon left the hotel near Heathrow and reassembled in offices near Aon's central London location. Other senior technology officers outside the U.S. were summoned to the location and arrived in the coming hours and days.

On the taxi to the metropolis, the driver turned and asked whether everyone was American, Drewry reports. He said, "I don't mean to be cruel, but nothing's happened on your soil before. You have to harden yourself to it and not let it change your life." Drewry found that to be an interesting perspective, and representative of a surprisingly warm sympathy expressed by Londoners in the coming days.

"The team was terrific," says Drewry. "They instinctively knew what to do, and the time zone differential meant that we could operate a much longer day than if everybody had been in the U.S."

Aon's telecommunications hub for the Northeast U.S. region was located at the World Trade Center, as was that of telecom company AT&T. Some of Aon's offices were on backup systems for up to six weeks later.

"We ordered lots of Blackberrys, and people started communicating with them," says Drewry. "We bought laptops, and we started gathering people back into New York. It was quite difficult but they were ready and eager because it gave them something else to think about."

For the first month after 9/11, travel was essentially prohibited across Aon. Special permission had to be granted for exceptions. "The attacks happened on a Tuesday, and the first commercial flight was on a Saturday night," Drewry remembers. "We had a couple of people on that flight, and some more on Sunday. On Monday we got as many people as we could on the company plane to get them back to Chicago. One of the challenges there was finding a place to land, because the major airports were not open."

Anthony O'Donnell has covered technology in the insurance industry since 2000, when he joined the editorial staff of Insurance & Technology. As an editor and reporter for I&T and the InformationWeek Financial Services of TechWeb he has written on all areas of information ... View Full Bio

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