A model life and a heroic death
Remembering American-Israeli Daniel Lewin, considered first 9/11 victim
This story originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post on the 10th anniversary of the September 2001 attacks on the United States.
Peggy and Charles Lewin had just spent an enjoyable week in Boston visiting their son Daniel, his wife, Anne, and their two sons, Eitan and Itamar.
The olim from Denver, Colorado, arrived back at their Jerusalem home on September 11, 2001, the same day that Danny, as he was affectionately called, boarded American Airlines Flight 11 at Logan Airport for a business trip to Los Angeles.
Fifteen minutes into the flight, the Boeing 767 was commandeered by five al-Qaida terrorists, who deliberately crashed it into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York, killing all 92 passengers and marking the beginning of the string of atrocities – now known as 9/11 – that left almost 3,000 people dead.
Three days later, Peggy, a pediatrician, was on the first flight allowed to leave Ben-Gurion Airport for New York in order to reach her daughter-in-law and grandchildren, who had just lost their husband and father – believed to be the first civilian fatality of 9/11.
Nobody knows for certain what happened in the half hour between the hijacking and the crash, but according to testimony the Federal Aviation Association compiled from recordings made by flight attendants Amy Sweeney and Betty Ong to American Airlines, as well as unreleased transcripts of additional conversations with Sweeney and Ong written down by an air traffic controller and held by the FBI, Lewin – a veteran of the IDF’s elite General Staff Reconnaissance Unit (Sayeret Matkal) – was likely stabbed in the throat by one of the terrorists, Satam al-Suqami, after Lewin attempted to foil the hijacking.
According to his younger brother Jonathan, it was a likely scenario for his brother’s fate.
“Even before we knew about the recorded conversations, we were sure that he fought the terrorists,” said Jonathan, 39, who runs a hi-tech financial company in Lod with his younger brother Michael.
“Part of it was his military training, sure, but first and foremost, it was his nature. He wasn’t one to sit passively by and see something bad happening and not try to get up and do something about it,” Jonathan said. “It was in his nature to be a hero.”
An Israeli and an American success story, Danny Lewin’s path to excellence was evident from an early age, according to his brother, even though there were a few bumps along the way. Like moving to Israel.
“My parents decided to make aliya from Denver in 1984 when Danny was 14 and I was 12 and a half,” Jonathan recalled. “He was at an age when he had a lot of friends, didn’t want to leave and was very ‘anti’ about coming to Israel.”
Instead of joining his family on a pre-aliya extended European vacation, he persuaded his parents to let him go to Israel without them, where he spent two months volunteering on Kibbutz Galon alongside 18- and 19-year-olds.
“I think that typified his personality: independent and very strong-minded,” said Jonathan. “After we all met up at the absorption center in Mevaseret Zion, he was still really angry with my parents, and I don’t think he really spoke to my father that whole first year.”
However, the two eventually reconciled, and within a few years, Danny transformed himself into what Jonathan called “a super Zionist,” serving in the IDF as a Sayeret Matkal officer.
A gifted student, he later attended and graduated with honors from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, while working at IBM’s research laboratory in Haifa, where he helped develop the Genesys system, a processor verification tool that is used widely within IBM.
In 1996, Danny moved to Boston, where he received a scholarship to study for his doctorate at MIT. Along with his adviser, Prof. F. Thomson Leighton, he devised algorithms for optimizing Internet traffic which became the foundation of the company they founded in 1998, Akamai. A great success in the late 1990s’ Internet boom, Akamai made both Leighton and Danny, the company’s chief technology officer, wealthy men and established the latter’s reputation as one of the Internet generation’s chief innovators.
According to Jonathan, his parents’ visit to Danny’s Boston home in early September 2001 was the first one their father had undertaken.
“My father was also kind of stubborn – Danny got it from somewhere,” he said. “For a long time, he wanted Danny to come back to Israel, so he refused to visit him in the States. But eventually he agreed, and Danny took great pride in showing him the company and what he had built there.”
The day after saying goodbye to his parents, Danny settled into seat 9B in the business-class section of Flight 11 for the trip from Boston to LA. Two of the hijackers, Muhammad Atta and Suqami, were apparently seated ahead of him, and another behind him.
According to the recorded FAA information, when the hijackers attacked one of the flight attendants, Lewin rose to protect her and prevent the terrorists from entering the cockpit. After he was stabbed, he bled to death on the floor, and two other flight attendants and the captain were murdered. The hijackers took over the cockpit and diverted the plane on its murderous path to New York.
“I’m sure he acted out of pure instinct,” said Jonathan.
“To this day, those of us who knew him well can’t figure out how only five terrorists managed to overpower him,” said Leighton less than a year after the attack, during the presentation of the newly renamed Danny Lewin Best Student Paper Award at a Montreal symposium on theory of computing.
“During his short life, Danny made extraordinary contributions to the Internet and to computer science through his work in algorithms and complexity theory. The impact of his work will be felt throughout the hi-tech industry for many years to come.”
Investigators initially couldn’t locate his body, but over a year later, some of his remains were discovered and are buried in Boston, at his request.
Every year on September 11 the members of the Lewin family gets together in Jerusalem, as they’ve done for the last decade, for an informal memorial service for Danny.
His brother Jonathan surmised that, despite his vast achievements at such a young age, the future had only been opening up for Danny, a future he was sure would have involved Israel.
“Danny always thought that he might like to come back and enter Israeli politics and influence the political situation,” said Jonathan. “He had some strong opinions about a lot of things, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had come back to Israel and made his mark.”
For the passengers of Flight 11, and for all the other people he touched during his life, Daniel Lewin’s mark is already indelible.
DANIEL LEWIN is believed to have died while trying to protect passengers from terrorist hijackers on an American Airlines flight from Boston to Los Angeles during the 9/11 attacks.