April 2, 2020

Honoring Danny Lewin. A Genius, a Hero, and the First Victim of 9/11

As I have done every year on Sept. 11 since 2002, I started my day looking for news stories and videos online about the people Americans should honor and remember most on the anniversary of one of the worst days in American history, the victims of 9/11, including the brave first responders (many of whom are still dying as a result of the illnesses and injuries they incurred as a result of that terrible attack). 

I came across this video from CBS News, which tells a brief part of the story of the first person killed by terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001: the incredible Danny Lewin.

But the video — while well worth watching — tells us only part of the story of the 31-year-old man the world lost that day. A man who was already, at age 31, known as a man who “transformed the internet.”

Lewin grew up in Jerusalem. After graduating from high school and completing his matriculation exams with the highest honors, Lewin volunteered, was accepted and served in Sayeret Matkal, one of the Israel Defense Forces’ most elite commando units. He was a tremendous and driven athlete in high school and he applied that same drive and genius in everything he did, including in the Israeli military.

Lewin was married before he turned 22; he and his wife had two boys. He earned his bachelor’s degree in computer science from Technion in Haifa, Israel (often referred to as the “MIT of the Middle East”) and one of the best engineering universities in the world.

In 1996, Lewin accepted a scholarship to study computer science and mathematics at MIT. Two years later, as noted in this video, while working on his doctorate, he helped found Akamai Technologies, a company that based on Lewin’s creative genius, offered a revolutionary way to deliver content over the internet. By 2001, Lewin was considered, in the world of high tech, to be one of the most influential technologists in the world (at age 31).

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Lewin boarded American Airlines Flight No. 11 to fly from Boston to Los Angeles. This flight was hijacked and ultimately crashed into the first tower hit that terrible day, the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York.

Based on the FBI’s and FAA’s investigation, it appears certain that Lewin was the first victim of the largest terrorist attack in American history in which almost 3,000 people were killed. An internal memorandum of the FAA said “that in the course of a struggle that took place between Lewin, a graduate of Israel’s elite commando unit, Sayeret Matkal, and the four hijackers who were assaulting that cockpit, Lewin was murdered by Satam Al Suqami, a 25-year-old Saudi.”

In connection with this report, the FBI relied, among other things, on the testimony of Amy Sweeney, who was a flight attendant on Flight No. 11. Before the terrorists crashed the plane into the north tower, Sweeney was able to secretly call a flight services supervisor in Boston. During that call she said, “A hijacker slit the throat of a passenger in Business Class and the passenger appears to me to be dead.” Other evidence supports the conclusion that when the first two terrorists (who were sitting in front of Lewin in Business Class), initiated their attack on the cockpit, that Lewin rose to intervene — not realizing that two more of the terrorists were seated behind him in Business Class — and it was these two terrorists who were able to attack Lewin from behind and kill him.

Danny Lewin (z”l), a son, husband, father, veteran of one Israel’s most elite commando units, outstanding graduate of Technion and MIT, as well as the co-founder of Akamai Technologies, should forever be remembered and honored for his effort to prevent the hijacking of Flight 11. He was the first person killed by al-Qaida terrorists on 9/11, one of the many terrible losses to the world that day, when the worst of humanity, killed one of the best.

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