The Genius Who Perished on Flight 11
Daniel Mark Lewin was almost certainly the first victim of the 9/11 attacks. But before he was killed in a struggle on Flight 11 at the age of 31, he wrote a set of algorithms that changed the Internet forever and made him a billionaire overnight. Lewin was also, ironically, an ex-commando trained in Israel's most elite army unit to hunt and kill terrorists. Twelve years after his death at the hands of terrorists, Lewin's extraordinary life has finally come to light.
By Molly Knight Raskin published September 2, 2013 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
From a young age, Danny Lewin brandished what his parents called "extraordinary vigor, " building impenetrable fortresses, constructing homemade computers, and climbing the foothills near his home in Englewood, Colorado. The Lewin family enjoyed an enviable middle-class existence in the Denver suburbs, where they settled just before the eldest of their three sons, Danny, was born on May 14, 1970. His father, Charles, was a psychiatrist, and his mother, Peggy, was a pediatrician. Brilliant but eccentric, Charles felt at odds with mainstream American culture. He clung to Judaism and disapproved of what he believed to be the ills of contemporary society—materialism, celebrity, wealth. To shield the boys, he and his wife decided early on to create an intellectual environment, one that encouraged curiosity, education, and the drive to succeed.
Danny's brothers, Jonathan and Michael, recall the morning they were searching for the hidden cartoon character on the back of a cereal box, and Charles promptly took it away. Much to their dismay, he later returned with the box in hand, covered in an article he had clipped from Scientific American. Thus began a family tradition of lessons at the dining table, and cereal boxes covered not only in academic articles but also in math and science puzzles. While other children their age were arguing over what cartoon to watch, the Lewin boys engaged in verbal jousting over infinity and game theory. "We enjoyed it, " says Michael. "My father pushed us to be interested in real things, not sit around and watch TV. "
When Danny was 14, Charles called his family together. "We're moving to Israel, " he announced. The son of a Jewish banker, Charles had grown up in a nonpracticing household. As an adult, he'd become interested in Zionism, particularly the concept of "making Aliyah, " a term meaning "rising up" to live in the Holy Land. The move, according to Charles, "had a sense of purposefulness and fulfillment for our lives as Jews. "
Although Charles said the plan was a year's sabbatical in Israel, everyone in the family sensed his desire to relocate permanently; no one, including Peggy, who was building her career as a pediatrician, wanted to move. When Danny found out about the move to Israel, he became angry and refused to join the family on a summer vacation in Europe. Instead, he went to work on a kibbutz in Israel where he'd worked once before. And when he met up with his family after they arrived in Haifa, he remained angry at Charles. His brothers recall an entire year during which Danny spoke as little as possible to his father.
A New Home
After three months in an absorption center outside of Jerusalem, the Lewins moved into a small apartment in the French Hill section of the city. The family began to settle in—even Danny. Although he occasionally skipped school, which he didn't find challenging enough, Danny's teenage rebellion calmed. Still, he spent as little time as possible at home. To financially emancipate himself, he took small jobs with the goal of moving into his own apartment.
He channeled his anger and frustration with the move to Israel by pushing himself to excel at everything, starting with workouts at the gym. Danny, a natural athlete, was built like a running back and could outrun and outplay all of his classmates on the sports field.
He became so physically fit that he bench-pressed more than 300 pounds at the age of 16. Says friend Ronen Sarig, "Danny was often trying to dumb himself down to fit in at the gym, but when I met his family, I realized his parents were trying to guide them to something big and important in life. "
Because school failed to challenge him, Danny taught himself math, his favorite subject and one in which he was extraordinarily gifted. He had also spent time on an Apple II his father had purchased, one of the earliest personal computers. Danny even took the SAT—just for fun—and he came just shy of a perfect score. He began to embrace life in Jerusalem. He started to identify himself as Israeli-American and developed strong political views—particularly when it came to securing Israel and protecting it from terrorism.
On Danny's 18th birthday, he was called to serve in the Israeli military, and he decided that he would serve only if he could do so in the country's top unit—an audacious goal, considering that he was not native- born and had no family legacy in the Israel Defense Forces. After over a year of punishing training, he was chosen to enter Sayeret Matkal—Israel's most elite combat unit—and rose to the rank of officer. As part of his training he learned Arabic and studied terrorists. He achieved such physical prowess that one friend who served with Danny said that he could have killed an armed terrorist with nothing more than a credit card, a pen—even his bare hands.
With his most intense missions winding down, Danny turned to another passion: girls. One night, at the apartment of a friend, Danny met a pretty 21-year-old Belgian named Anne, who had moved to Israel as a teenager with her family. Their courtship was sweet, but like all things in Danny's life, it was also intense. Just months after meeting her, he proposed on a cliff overlooking the desert. They were married in Jerusalem in a small ceremony. "I did think they were too young, " recalls best friend Marco Greenberg. "But Danny was serious about everything. " A little over a year after they were married, their first son, Eitan, was born.
Danny left the army when he was accepted to the Israel Institute of Technology (the Technion), Israel’s premier tech university. He also landed a job at IBM’s research laboratory in Haifa, where he helped create a software verification system still used today. While juggling the demands of his day job, a teaching assistant position, and a young family, Danny also completed two degrees, in math and engineering, summa cum laude.
Still, Danny wasn’t satisfied. The math in his head moved too rapidly for his desk job. He craved the company of like minds; in what little spare time he had, Danny borrowed library books on complex math. He gravitated toward the work of F. Thomson Leighton, a professor of applied math at MIT and the head of the algorithms group at the university’s laboratory for computer science.
Danny applied to the top 10 computer science programs in the United States, including MIT’s, which accepted just a few students a year. He was accepted to all 10 programs, some with scholarships.
Danny’s father, however, wasn’t enthusiastic. Whatever pride he had in Danny’s accomplishments was dwarfed by his insistence that Israel should be his family’s permanent home. Friends say that, to Charles, Danny’s move back to America was a form of betrayal—a violation of the Zionist belief that to live outside of Israel was to live in exile. Charles asked him to promise to return when he finished his doctorate. And Danny did plan to return; he hoped to one day teach at the Technion, or serve again in the IDF.
In the fall of 1996, Danny moved to Boston to pursue a Ph.D. in applied math at MIT. Anne, who was pregnant with their second child, Itamar, arrived a month after giving birth. It was the start of a new life; Anne enrolled at Boston College for a master’s in French Literature. The intellectual energy excited them—their neighbors were students from all over the world studying to be molecular biologists, biomedical engineers, and architects.
Tom Leighton, who had taught dozens of brilliant students over the years, recalls that Lewin succeeded in rising above his classmates fairly quickly, standing out not only for his brilliance but also for his uninhibited personality. In an academic department known for its brainpower and dogged work ethic, Lewin introduced humor. He played pranks on his fellow students, wrote limericks and pasted them to the bland laboratory halls.
The atmosphere was genial, but competitive. Of course, there was an unspoken push to publish papers. “You are surrounded by incredibly smart people, and you are searching for a needle in a haystack—one that will make you famous,” says Yevgeniy Dodis, now at New York University. “Danny had so much drive that he would not even sleep; it was the drive of a complete madman.”
Leighton, who had taken on Lewin as his teaching and research assistant, agreed to advise him on his master’s thesis. Leighton encouraged Lewin, but never pushed him. He laughed with him, counseled him, and expressed awe at his work. Lewin came to admire him not just professionally, but personally, too. Leighton was nonjudgmental, easygoing, and always pleasant. In a short period, the two became inseparable—working around the clock, sharing an office, and excitedly sketching out algorithms well into the night. They could even finish each other’s sentences.
That same year, Tim Berners-Lee, the MIT-based British physicist and computer scientist credited as the inventor of the World Wide Web, had become fixated on what he saw as the greatest impediment to widespread use of the Internet: the “hot spot” problem, which occurred when too many people logged on to a website and crashed it.
Back then, the Internet functioned fairly well within small communities like academic institutions, but it remained seriously flawed when it came to broad consumer use. In the late ’90s, a user dialed into the Internet using a home telephone line, which meant frustrating wait times. Berners-Lee issued a clear challenge to Leighton and his students: “Find a way to solve the hot spot problem.”
Lewin began to work toward solving it. And with Leighton, he came up with a set of algorithms that not only formed his master’s thesis but also had the potential to change the way the Internet worked. Using complex math to route and replicate content over a large network of distributed servers, they created a way to speed up delivery of content over the Internet.
At the time, he and Leighton felt certain that the larger the network grew, the better their algorithms would perform. They not only had an answer to the challenge, they had a revolutionary solution.
At the same time, Danny and Anne were living like many graduate students, crowded into a small apartment (with two kids) and on a tight budget. They were close to broke, and both of them spent sleepless nights worrying about how they would pay their bills and student loans.
They turned to their families for support, but from Danny’s side, the call was met with silence. It had been more than two years since Danny had moved his family to Boston, and his father had not yet visited. In fact, Charles refused to do so, even to see his grandchildren. To Charles, making the trip to Boston would mean endorsing Danny’s life there, something he was not prepared to do. He believed that the longer Danny stayed in the U.S., the more likely he would be to abandon devout Judaism and become trapped in a culture of wealth, materialism, and fame. His refusal to visit, he said, was not a snub; it was a matter of principle.
To make ends meet, Lewin took on odd jobs like sweeping the halls of their apartment complex. He refused to buy a coat, even during the most frigid winter months. And often, the couple limited their grocery list to canned and boxed goods. MIT classmate Eric Lehman (now with Google) recalls Lewin “wrestling with the decision of whether or not to replace one of the boys’ lunch boxes.”
In the spring of 1997, Lewin’s friend Preetish Nijhawan, who was a student at the MIT Sloan School of Management, began pushing Lewin to draft a business plan out of his thesis and enter it into the annual entrepreneurship contest hosted by Sloan. Lewin, Leighton, and Nijhawan entered and won the software category in a pre-round; they spent the $100 prize money on beer. They decided to enter the final competition, which came with a prize of $50,000, in May 1998. They officially named their company Akamai—meaning “cool and clever” in Hawaiian. Out of the 84 entries, they placed fifth. It was a big blow. Danny was sure his team would take a top prize. Still, he pushed forward with faith in the power of the algorithms he and Leighton had created.
So they decided to take their solution from paper to the World Wide Web by starting their own business. Over the course of a year they brought on seasoned talent who saw the potential in their idea, even if they didn’t understand the math. Their staff soon included George Conrades, a veteran of IBM, and Paul Sagan, former president of new media at Time Inc. and cousin of astronomer Carl Sagan, and their board attracted several big investors. With an initial investment of $8 million, Akamai was created in August 1998. By this time, Lewin had already postponed graduate school.
In its architecture, the Internet was built much like the streets of an ancient city, unable to handle growing congestion. Akamai swooped in like a superhighway of interconnected servers that routed data at ever more efficient speeds. As a 1999 feature in Wired put it, Akamai was “a limousine service that guarantees a short ride no matter what the traffic conditions.”
In Spring 1999, Akamai was put to the test when it handled traffic to ESPN’s website during the NCAA’s March Madness, receiving more than 3,000 hits per second from basketball fans around the world. At the end of that same day, Lewin’s team handled a movie trailer for Star Wars: The Phantom Menace for Entertainment Tonight. Apple, which was also carrying the trailer that night, couldn’t sustain the crush. At one point, someone in Akamai’s control room shouted: “Hey, Apple is down!” In fact, every website carrying bootleg copies of the trailer had also crashed. The next day, CNN reported a story on a small Cambridge tech startup that kept the Star Wars trailer live when no one else could.
The idea that Lewin, Leighton, the two other cofounders (Jonathan Seelig and Randall Kaplan), and a handful of investors could become really rich seemed likely. But Lewin didn’t show much interest in material wealth beyond the hope that he could earn enough for his family to live comfortably. For Lewin, it was about winning. He wanted to beat every competitor that crept, even timidly, into Akamai’s market.
From the beginning of building Akamai, Lewin never took no for an answer. Of course, plenty of potential customers said no, and Lewin’s efforts to woo them were often dramatic, and sometimes shocking. When Microsoft executives told Lewin they didn’t need Akamai, he refused to leave the building; security had to escort him out. The very next day, he returned to the building and staked out a spot in the lobby until a charitable, and somewhat intrigued, executive decided to give Lewin one last shot. Microsoft became one of Akamai’s biggest early investors.
Lewin was also known for his client presentations in front of the whiteboard. During one such meeting, he stood before the tech team at the popular AOL website of the Motley Fool, Fool.com, an online financial forum. As he started his talk, it was apparent that this hard-edged group of over 20 would be difficult to woo—many of them were lounging disrespectfully. With pen in hand, he began to cover the board with strings of math and streams of business strategies; the more he talked and scrawled, the more animated he became, all the while hopping and grinning. Fool’s chief technologist, Dwight Gibbs, recalls a palpable shift in the room when his team moved forward in their seats. When Lewin had covered the whiteboard, he began writing on the unfinished wall. When he stopped, they began firing questions at Lewin, but not even the smartest in the room could poke a hole in his ideas. When Lewin left, Gibbs recalls the room’s collective feeling of awe. “My guys looked at me and said, ‘He’s scary smart, and this might actually work.’ ”
On another occasion, Lewin called Linux, which made servers in North Carolina, to say Akamai needed around 1,000 servers in four weeks. The company said such a large order wasn’t possible; they needed more time. Instead of pleading with them, Lewin sent them an e-mail to confirm a deadline of four weeks. That night, he went to the hardware store and bought tool kits, flew to North Carolina with some of his best engineers, and showed up to work at Linux the next morning. A baffled employee said, “Sir, who are you here to see?” Lewin replied: “I’m not here to see anyone; I’m here to build servers.” Within four weeks, he’d helped Linux construct more than 1,000 new servers.
At one point, Akamai even got a call from Steve Jobs. When Paul Sagan’s phone rang, he answered and the voice on the other end said: “Hi, this is Steve Jobs, and I want to buy your company.” At first, Sagan thought that his brother, Alex, was playing an April Fool’s prank on him. “I almost said, ‘F*ck you, Alex,’” says Sagan. But it was indeed Steve Jobs, and Akamai was not for sale.
Just nine months after its inception, Akamai went public in an explosive IPO that made history in the dot-com craze. When shares began trading on the NASDAQ, Akamai was valued at $26 a share; it then soared to more than $145 a share, a 458 percent gain and the fourth steepest climb ever for a U.S. stock in its first day. On paper, Leighton, 42, and Lewin, 29, were worth $1.8 billion. But the only purchases Lewin made with his new fortune were a few Harley Davidsons to ride with friends and a new home in Brookline, Massachusetts; he also planned to re-enroll at MIT to finish his Ph.D.
Akamai’s stock price peaked on December 31, 1999, at $327 a share. The burgeoning tech sector, however, was about to implode, and by 2001, most of Akamai’s customers were going broke. In summer 2001, the company’s stock fell to five dollars a share. Hoping to weather the bust, Akamai downsized and focused on blue-chip clients like GM and Verizon, a move that would slowly pull the company through a drawn-out revival.
Lewin’s personal life was also suffering. Anne had grown tired of spending time alone with the boys and was frustrated that Danny often put his work above their marriage. Eventually, Danny and Anne temporarily separated, and he began seeing other women. To many coworkers and friends, the fracturing of their relationship didn’t come as a surprise. While he always counted her and the boys among his top priorities, Lewin’s primary commitment, for the better part of two years, had been Akamai. “No one was spending a ton of time with anyone outside the office—this was all we did,” says Jonathan Seelig, formerly of Akamai. “The company had an impact on everyone’s personal lives.”
In addition, Danny’s father, Charles, had become ever more distant as well as more vocal in his criticism of his son’s vast wealth and fixation with work. Danny, though, didn’t want to lose Anne or his father; he began a concerted effort to save both relationships. While he was successful in reconciling with Anne, his father was more difficult. Lewin made several trips to Israel that year, beseeching Charles to come to the U.S.—he wanted his father to see what he had built; he wanted him to be proud. Charles again declined to visit.
Charles finally agreed; no one knows exactly why he changed his mind. Nor, for that matter, does Charles himself. But the trip meant much to both father and son. In the first week of September 2001, Charles and Peggy arrived in Boston for a long weekend. They toured Akamai, walked Cambridge, and talked about the previous five years. Looking back on the visit, Charles says, “Things occur that we don’t understand in the usual frame of our understandings, and my going there was one of them. It was something b’siyata dishmaya [with the help of Heaven].”
Early on the morning of September 11, 2001, just after his parents left, Lewin kissed Anne goodbye and drove to Boston’s Logan Airport. He arrived just in time to catch American Airlines Flight 11 to Los Angeles, scheduled to depart at 8:00 a.m. It was a trip he had taken so many times that he knew the flight crew by name, the most comfortable seats, as well as the aircraft make and model. The plane wasn’t full—nine crew-members, two pilots, and 81 passengers, including a television producer, an actress, a photographer, and several businessmen. But Lewin was a standout, dressed more like a college kid—in his Gap blue jeans, T-shirt, and gray Nike sneakers—than an Internet entrepreneur. He settled into his seat, 9B.
Flight 11 took off on schedule and headed due west, holding course for 16 minutes until it passed Worcester, Massachusetts. Then, instead of taking a southerly turn, it swung north and failed to climb to its assigned cruising altitude. At this point, it’s possible Lewin suspected—perhaps before anyone else on the flight—that something terrible was about to happen. Having trained in the IDF’s most elite counterterrorism unit, he had learned to identify signs of attacks well before they were carried out. He also knew conversational Arabic, enough to have picked up on verbal cues if the five Middle Eastern passengers gave any.
About 8:15 the bloody hijacking began. The terrorists—wielding box cutters and knives—rose from their seats in business class and began to threaten passengers and crew. Most of what we know comes from reports by two flight attendants, Betty Ong and Madeline Amy Sweeney, who calmly relayed the details as they unfolded. At 8:19, Ong told flight control: “The cockpit is not answering, somebody’s stabbed in business class... I think there’s Mace... we can’t breathe... I think we’re getting hijacked.” In a separate call, Sweeney reported the plane had been hijacked and two flight attendants had been stabbed. Sweeney also confirmed that a passenger in business class had been stabbed to death; his throat slashed by one of the terrorists. The passenger, she said, was sitting in 9B.
The 9/11 Commission concluded that in those first 20 minutes of the flight, Mohamed Atta—the only terrorist on board trained to fly a jet—probably moved to the cockpit from his business-class seat (located near Lewin’s seat), possibly accompanied by Abdulaziz al-Omari. As this was happening, Lewin, who was seated in the row just behind Atta and Omari, was stabbed in the neck by one of the hijackers—probably Satam al-Suqami, who was seated directly behind Lewin, out of his view.
Between 8:25 and 8:32, Boston airspace managers announced that the plane had been hijacked and was heading toward New York’s airspace. At 8:44, Sweeney made her last call to ground control: “Something is wrong. We are in a rapid descent . . . We are flying low. We are flying very, very low. We are flying way too low.” Seconds later, Sweeney said, “Oh my God, we are way too low.” At 8:46, the Boeing 767 slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, killing everyone on board.
In a tragic twist of irony, that same day, dozens of critical websites looked to Akamai for help managing an unprecedented crush of traffic. Through a fog of grief, everyone at the company said they kept working because of Danny, serving more than 1 trillion hits and 150 million video streams related to 9/11.
In the decade since Danny’s death, Charles and Peggy have turned inward, grieving quietly and privately. They have refused interview requests and declined to participate in annual 9/11 memorial events.
Anne Lewin still lives in Brookline. She, too, chose to remain silent on the topic of Lewin’s death, privately mourning the loss of her husband. Anne remarried and, the following year, gave birth to a daughter. Eitan and Itamar resemble their father: They are bright, lively, and refuse to lose an argument. They love Israel, excel in school, and are gifted in math and science. Friends say Itamar dreams of going to MIT. Eitan, who loves the outdoors, hopes to one day join the IDF.
Lewin’s legacy is still very much alive at Akamai. His portrait, painted by the mother of an employee, hangs in the lobby of the company’s headquarters at Cambridge Center. Every year, on September 11,
Leighton and company executives hold a memorial tribute to Lewin in a small courtyard adjacent to Akamai.
In the far corner of the square, they dedicated an apple tree to Lewin and at its roots is a plaque in his name. A block away, the intersection of Main and Vassar streets was named Danny Lewin Square in 2002. Today Akamai has offices around the world, more than 3,500 employees, and a market capitalization of $6.9 billion. In 2012, the company purchased the Israeli company Cotendo, one of its largest competitors, in a deal valued at some $268 million. With the acquisition, Akamai finally realized Lewin’s dream of a presence in Israel.
Tom Leighton is now Akamai’s CEO, currently on leave from MIT. To this day, he can hardly speak about the loss of Lewin without tears. He still thinks of him daily and may return to academia in search of the next Danny Lewin.
Adapted from No Better Time: The Brief, Remarkable Life of Danny Lewin, the Genius Who Transformed the Internet by Molly Knight Raskin (Da Capo Press/The Perseus Books Group). Copyright © 2013.