Skip to main content

The legacy of Danny Lewin, the first man to die on 9/11

Danny Lewin packed a lot into his 31 years, including founding a major tech firm, Akamai Technologies.
Danny Lewin packed a lot into his 31 years, including founding a major tech firm, Akamai Technologies.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Danny Lewin was a math genius who co-founded Akamai Technologies
  • Lewin's innovative algorithms allowed the Web to run faster, more efficiently
  • Lewin may have been first person to die in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks
  • He was likely stabbed to death on the first plane that struck the World Trade Center

(CNN) -- Even by MIT standards, says Tom Leighton, Danny Lewin was special.

"He was really exceptionally smart. MIT has a lot of really smart people, and Danny stood out even among that rarified environment," says Leighton, who was then one of Lewin's professors at the Massachusetts school's computer science laboratory. "He liked working on the hardest problems, as opposed to the easier ones, because they would make more of a difference."

That kind of determination drove Lewin throughout his short life. He was an American who joined the Israeli army and served in an elite unit, though he could have avoided the military altogether. He was a mathematician who could have had a stellar academic career but decided to jump into business.

Most importantly, in the late '90s he saw a solution to what was then called the "World Wide Wait" and, with his company Akamai Technologies -- co-founded with Leighton -- made the Web faster and more efficient. (Disclosure: CNN was an early Akamai client and remains one to this day.)

Lewin died on September 11, 2001, at age 31. He was on American Airlines Flight 11, the first plane to hit the World Trade Center, and was almost certainly the first person killed in the attacks on that horrible day.

2013: Time-lapse: New WTC tower

His life is now the subject of a new biography, "No Better Time: The Brief, Remarkable Life of Danny Lewin, the Genius Who Transformed the Internet."

If you've never heard of Lewin, you're not alone, says the book's author, Molly Knight Raskin. That was partly due to his low-profile life and business -- Akamai is an infrastructure company, and Lewin wasn't flashy with his instant dot-com millions -- and partly because his friends and family shied away from publicity.

But she believes it's a life that deserves to be celebrated.

Even at 31, she says, he'd already accomplished so much. There were so many different elements, she says -- his military service, his business leadership, his intellect, his savvy -- and she wanted to convey some of that energy to others.

"It was about the way he lived," she says. "I felt like if he was motivating me as much, I felt like I could do the same for readers."

'Like lighting a fire'

From the beginning, Lewin seemed destined for big things. Even as a child he was an accomplished violinist, performer and athlete. He loved computers, too, learning to program an Apple II his father brought home in 1979. He was 9.

In 1984, his family decided to move to Israel, and Lewin grew up near Jerusalem. He often spent as much time weightlifting as on his schoolwork, the book notes; nevertheless he aced his classes while developing an enviable physique. The latter would serve him well when he joined the Israel Defense Forces and tried out for the Sayeret Matkal, the secretive unit known for the famed 1976 rescue raid on Uganda's Entebbe Airport.

Israel was key to shaping Lewin's temperament, says Raskin.

"Moving to Israel was like lighting a fire under (his) drive," she says. "He wanted to squeeze every last drop out of every minute out of every hour out of every day."

The imprint of the country's intensity and its people's blunt manner were obvious to anyone who met him years later. Some Akamai colleagues found him abrasive, and Lewin -- who had a fondness for words -- joked about being "obstreperous." But he was also terrifically loyal, supportive of staff and worked as hard as anybody.

Tom Leighton and Danny Lewin founded Akamai in 1998.
Tom Leighton and Danny Lewin founded Akamai in 1998.

"He was motivating, so if he did kick you in the butt and tell you to work harder, generally people responded very well to that," Leighton recalls. "People wanted to 'take the hill' if he was saying that's what we've got to do."

It was enough to impress Leighton, the academic who says in the book that he would have been perfectly happy to spend the rest of his life solving proofs. What attracted him to enter the private sector was "a chance for us to make a difference in the real world," he says in a phone interview.

"In the area where we worked, in algorithms and the theoretical side of computer science, often that work is good, deep work, but it doesn't change the world. It doesn't impact people directly," adds Leighton, now the CEO of Akamai. "With this work, we thought it would have relevance in the real world, and make the Internet be faster, more reliable, more secure. It was a chance that was pretty rare for us."

'His potential was limitless'

You have to remember that the Web we use today -- with practically instantaneous results, broadband-fueled streaming video and at-your-fingertips devices -- was practically unimaginable when Akamai was founded in 1998. Back then, with dial-up access and overworked servers, a page load could be as interminable as the drip of molasses.

And so Akamai -- the name comes from the Hawaiian for "smart" or "clever" -- was born. But even with its killer app, which lowered the possibility of crashing servers, there was no guarantee of success, even in the late-'90s dot-com era. Indeed, Akamai's first attempt at impressing the venture capitalists who fund such dreams, the MIT $50K Entrepreneurship Competition, fell short. That only pushed Lewin to work harder.

The company struck pay dirt on an unlikely day, March 11, 1999. That Thursday two events shook the Web: The opening of the NCAA men's basketball tournament and the first streaming of the trailer for "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace." While servers crashed all over the country, Akamai-supported machines handled the surge, and the company started taking off.

The next two years were boom and bust -- for the Internet and for Akamai.

In the aftermath of the company's October 1999 IPO, Lewin and Leighton were briefly paper billionaires. The stock scaled $300 a share.

Then came the crash of 2000. Dozens of dot-com companies folded. By 2001, Akamai stock was selling for less than $5.

A park in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is named in Lewin\'s memory.
A park in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is named in Lewin's memory.

Leighton says Lewin never lost his concentration.

"We were both pretty focused on getting the job done, and that was true whether the stock was at 350 bucks or 50 cents," he says "It was positive reinforcement. If one of us got worried about a problem, the other would step in and say, here's how we're going to get past this one and here's why it's going to work out."

9/11

Nevertheless, things were particularly grim on September 10, 2001. Leighton remembers a session stretching late into the evening in which the executives had to decide whom to lay off, including some friends and colleagues who had been with them almost since the beginning. The next morning Lewin had to fly from Boston to Los Angeles.

"He probably barely got an hour of sleep before getting on board the next morning," Leighton remembers.

Lewin was sitting in seat 9B. With his Israeli military training and understanding of Arabic, he may have figured out what was going on, perhaps even tried to stop it. According to flight attendants' calls relayed to authorities on the ground, the first passenger to be killed was seated in 9B. He was stabbed to death.

Friends have always pondered the what-ifs. Lewin may have finished his Ph.D., something that always nagged at him. Friends thought he could have entered Israeli politics. Or he could have become a high-tech household name, like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs.

"Those who knew him feel like the world was robbed," says Raskin. "He was always searching for something greater."

Leighton, who helped keep Akamai going in the dark days after Lewin's death, wonders as well. Akamai has since become a multibillion-dollar company active in cybersecurity. Perhaps Lewin would have gone that direction, using both his mathematical mind and his military training to fight terrorism.

We'll never know.

"I think he could have done whatever he decided he wanted to do," says Leighton. "I think his potential was limitless."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
Remembering 9/11
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
A lot happened in response to the 9/11 terror attacks. Here is a look at what has worked, what hasn't and what has to happen now.
May 16, 2014 -- Updated 1454 GMT (2254 HKT)
When do the ordinary -- letters, gloves, wallets -- become extraordinary?
May 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
President Barack Obama marked the dedication of the September 11 Memorial Museum with families, survivors and rescuers at the site.
September 11, 2013 -- Updated 1410 GMT (2210 HKT)
The new North Tower is finally high enough to partially restore the skyline I used to see when I stepped outside my home in Greenwich Village.
September 12, 2012 -- Updated 1443 GMT (2243 HKT)
For years, Denise Scott and her three daughters thought they had certainty about their loved one's death on September 11, 2001.
September 11, 2013 -- Updated 1124 GMT (1924 HKT)
Even by MIT standards, says Tom Leighton, Danny Lewin was special.
September 11, 2013 -- Updated 1132 GMT (1932 HKT)
Some New Yorkers mark the anniversary of the September 11 attacks by going to a memorial service or observing a moment of silence.
September 12, 2013 -- Updated 0230 GMT (1030 HKT)
Click through our gallery to see how people are remembering the 9/11 anniversary across the nation.
September 11, 2013 -- Updated 1532 GMT (2332 HKT)
More than a decade after that dreadful day, 9/11 memories are still fresh for the mother who lost her son.
September 11, 2013 -- Updated 1500 GMT (2300 HKT)
Reggie Hilaire was a rookie cop on September 11, 2001. He worked at ground zero for 11 days beside his colleagues, not wearing a mask.
September 11, 2013 -- Updated 1410 GMT (2210 HKT)
Before September 11, 2001, the easy way to find true north was to use the towers as a reference point. After that day, the compass just spun, as the city struggled to figure out which way to go.
September 11, 2012 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
Two parents share how their youngest child, Peter, was murdered on September 11, 2001, while attending a conference at Windows on the World at the World Trade Center. He was 25 years old.
September 11, 2013 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
See the progress of buildings under construction at the site, as well as memorials.
September 11, 2013 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Here is some background on the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Mohammed Hamdani's name isn't among the first responders that are on the 9/11 memorial. But on that day, the 23-year-old certified EMT skipped his job at a university research lab to rushed to the World Trade Center.
September 11, 2012 -- Updated 1350 GMT (2150 HKT)
In the few years immediately after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, many travelers avoided flying on that day if they could help it.
October 29, 2012 -- Updated 1411 GMT (2211 HKT)
Marine Cpl. Juan Dominguez lost three limbs in an explosion in Afghanistan.
Today's fifth-graders were not even born on that day. For them, September 11 is history -- and often, a topic in their history class. And as of last fall, 21 states specifically mentioned 9/11 in their social studies standards.
Although countless Muslims have condemned the acts of 9/11 in the United States and worldwide, American Muslims became objects of suspicion.
September 12, 2012 -- Updated 0253 GMT (1053 HKT)
As memorials recall the victims of 9/11 across the country, our photo gallery will relfect the observed remembrances.
ADVERTISEMENT