AV consultant Felix Robinson didn’t know that by mid-morning, September 11th, 2001, he would manage much more than an audio installation at Madison Square Garden. He didn’t know that the day would soon turn deadly for nearly 3,000 people, some of whom were friends and colleagues. Robinson was just doing his job in New York on 9/11, but just like any New Yorker on that day, he has vivid, painful memories of what happened after the terrorist attacks.
It’s not every day that AV industry workers deal with national emergencies, but Felix Robinson, formerly of AVI-SPL and now an independent consultant, recalls the stressful hours that ensued on the day America was attacked 16 years ago.
He wasn’t in Manhattan at the time, but his whole team was. The project was a major sound system for Madison Square Garden’s (MSG) concourses, private boxes and balconies. Felix Robinson was the senior supervisor for the work, and spent most of his time organizing from Signal Perfection, Ltd.’s project HQ in nearby Mount Vernon. (This was before the merger that created AVI-SPL.)
The team — consisting of on-site project manager Larry Politi, around 30 crew members, and the contracted NYC Iron Workers Local 40 — had finished the major metal infrastructure which would hold the speaker systems in place. They were gaining ground on a looming October 7th deadline: pretty tight for a project of that size, which only began construction in August.
“We were under extreme deadline and had the Rangers [hockey] season opener on the 7th, so we were quite far into the installation,” he says.
At 8:45, the crew was prepping for a hard day of steel mounting, when a plane flew into one of the World Trade Center buildings.
I remember being told there was a fire at the Trade Center, but didn’t have a TV in my office. So I rushed into another office… And we all just stood there, standing around a very small screen. The idea at first was that it was an accident… Up until the second plane hit.
I gathered all employees in the [Mount Vernon office] building to help plan what needed to happen next. It was clear that the roads and bridges were going to become chaotic, so we had to check who lived North of the Whitestone Bridge and who lived South of it. Most of our employees lived in Long Island or Queens. There was no information about which roads were operating. The subway was shut down.
I called Larry, who was at MSG with the crew, and he told me the steel workers had just left because their superiors had told them to leave. Many of them walked downtown, helmets on, readying to help find survivors in the wreckage.
Like many Americans on that day, Robinson thought about his family first. After making calls to his wife and daughter, he reached out to every employee who was working at MSG. It wasn’t easy to reach them, with phone lines overloaded and the internet slowed.
The rest of the day blurs together in Robinson’s memory. He had to account for his team, spending most of the morning and afternoon on the phone. But his ride home — a three-hour drive that on most days takes 30 minutes — gave him pause.
As he crossed the Whitestone Bridge, Felix says he saw a plume of unnatural smoke still rising from Ground Zero.
“It was a feeling of sadness and concern that what was happening wasn’t the end of it.”
Three days after 9/11, his team commenced work on MSG, and Robinson made additional stops at customer’s dust-covered sites closer to the wreckage.
I was brought into operational jobs near Ground Zero and I needed to take surveys for systems near there. The dust was amazing! I’d walk into client sites and everything was covered in white powder and the contamination was everywhere. Many AV systems were affected and we were very busy trying to get these operating again. We kept checking on people we knew, but it seemed like every day brought another name of a client, colleague, or and friend – the sadness just kept coming.
Despite the painful, fear-ridden atmosphere which plagued the nation in the weeks following 9/11, Robinson says his team worked in any way they could to make the MSG deadline.
“We had to compress our already-compressed schedule. We only had a week to test a giant sound system.”
But they made it. And while Robinson was backstage during the Rangers’ opening game on October 7th, busily eyeing each of the system’s zones and communicating with the facility’s production crew via walkie-talkies, he says he became very emotional.
There’s always been a spirit in the AV industry based on ‘the show must go on’ – you can’t stop the effort. In this case, ‘the effort’ was for the public to have access to the important MSG facility. The AV industry allows public spaces to operate. They’re important to how public services are delivered. The whole experience confirmed the importance of how we operate and the spirit of making sure things get done. You don’t just leave a job because of a disaster. NYC in general is a city which does not shrink from responsibility – it pitches in. I’m sure that applies to every AV company in New York.
Felix Robinson has lived in New York City for over 30 years and resides there today. He says he hopes people in the AV industry, and the country in general, take time on the 9/11 anniversary to reflect on the idea that no disaster is impossible to recover from.
Professionals have to concentrate on their responsibilities, whether they’re emergency personnel or a part of AV. Services have to continue, and now that the AV industry is more about unified communications, we have a greater responsibility in how to share communications. It’s people that make it work, and when I think about 9/11, I think about how the spirit of our industry and how it must appreciate the efforts we’ve made to recover and help our customers recover, and to have public services go uninterrupted. I was proud to be a part of that process.
Felix Robinson can be reached via his LinkedIn page.