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Danny Lewin, co-founder and chief technology officer of Akamai Technologies in Cambridge, Mass., in August 2000. Lewin was a passenger on the first plane to slam into the World Trade Center. He grew up in Denver, a neighbor of News Assistant Business Editor Gil Rudawsky.


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At 29, a billionaire; at 31, a casualty

Denver native Danny Lewin: Internet genius, ex-commando, father. And on 9-11, quite possibly terrorism's first victim

By Gil Rudawsky, Rocky Mountain News
September 4, 2002

Danny Lewin didn't like to lose. In anything. And he rarely did.

No one will ever know for sure what happened between 7:59 a.m., when American Airlines Flight 11 took off with Danny in business class, and 8:48 a.m., when it slammed into the World Trade Center's North Tower.

But Danny's friends are convinced he didn't go down without a fight, that he was the passenger whose throat was slashed by terrorists - a killing recounted in a flight attendant's hysterical cell phone call.

Danny Lewin was 31, a Denver native turned Israeli commando turned MIT whiz kid turned Internet visionary.

And, most likely, Sept. 11's first casualty.

That might be Danny's legacy. But it's only a fraction of the story about my childhood friend.

Before that fateful flight on Sept. 11, 2001, Danny's life was one of contradictions and ironies: a billionaire living in student housing; an expert in complex mathematical algorithms who could bench twice his weight; a devout Jew who loved motorcycles and fast cars; a brilliant son who had difficulty earning the respect of his father; an Internet entrepreneur whose discovery would be given its toughest test on the day of his death; and a former commando in an elite Israeli anti-terrorism force who would die at the hands of those he had been trained to kill.

I grew up four houses down from Danny, on South Chester Court in suburban Denver. Until his family moved to Jerusalem when Danny was 15, we did everything together - sports, trick-or-treating, computer games.

Two years after Danny moved, I visited him in Jerusalem. He was having a hard time adjusting to life away from Chester Court. He asked me to send him anything American - T-shirts, tapes, ball caps.

Somewhere along the way, we lost touch. In the meantime, my childhood friend became obsessed with becoming the best at everything.

He called everything that got in his way obstreperous, a stumbling block. It was his favorite word.

Danny was labeled one of the world's 100 smartest people. There was talk that he would be Bill Gates' successor.

His master's thesis at MIT was the basis for an endeavor that became the model of a high-flying Internet company.

At age 29, Danny was worth $3.2 billion.

This is his story.

First confirmed victim

On Sept. 11, culling through the barrage of wire service stories about the attacks, I noticed a two-paragraph story. It was the first confirmation of a fatality.

"Akamai Technologies Inc., an Internet-technology company, said its co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Daniel Lewin was on a flight that terrorists hijacked and crashed into the World Trade Center today.

"Lewin, 31, was on a Los Angeles-bound American Airlines flight, the first of two hijacked flights that crashed into the twin towers, which burned and collapsed."

He had taken the flight several times before, and this time he was on his way to an Internet conference.

Danny left behind his wife, Anne, and two young children, Eitan and Itamar, of Brookline, a Boston suburb; two brothers, Jonathan and Michael; and his parents, Charles and Peggy, of Jerusalem.

A week earlier, his father had traveled to Boston and begged Danny to return to Israel. He felt his business success should be secondary to being a devout Jew. He tried to convince his son that a man is measured only by his devoutness in the eyes of God, and part of that can be accomplished by living in the Jewish homeland.

Danny's mother, Peggy, secretly wanted him to stay in the United States, though, because she thought it was safer.

But on that Tuesday morning last September, he could not have been in more danger.

The final transmission from a flight attendant to air traffic controllers offers some clues about what happened on Flight 11.

She said a businessman sitting in the front of the plane had been stabbed to death. She gave the row number, but investigators refuse to disclose whether Danny was sitting there.

Marco Greenberg, one of Danny's close friends, has a pretty good idea what happened: "Given Danny's character and (military) background, I'm sure he didn't just sit there and I'm sure he fought back."

Greenberg, who owns a New York public relations firm that represents Akamai, said at Danny's memorial service: "Our friend is quite probably the first fatality in the first war of the 21st century."

100 miles and back

Every Israeli citizen must complete four years of military service. Danny didn't question it. And it didn't take long before he was chosen for an elite commando unit. His military exploits are legendary and, for the most part, secret.

In one training exercise, his unit was given three days to cross 100 miles in the desert with few provisions.

Danny did it twice.

His colleagues said that later, as a business executive, he would tell his staff about the run: "Just when you think you've hit your limits, you can find the inner discipline to keep going."

He became captain of a unit that trained to fight terrorism and he routinely led covert missions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, hunting down suspected terrorists.

South Chester Court

Danny's successes contrast with his childhood.

Life on South Chester Court was typical suburbia, a neighborhood filled with doctors, college professors, insurance salesmen and bankers. At night they would cluster on their driveways, sit on lawn chairs and watch their children play. Most families had children about the same age, born in the late 1960s or early 1970s.

The Lewin family was different, though.

Besides Danny, there were his psychiatrist father, Charles; his pediatrician mother, Peggy; and two younger brothers.

The Lewin boys were terrors, and Danny led the charge.

At one point, his family placed Danny in a private school after he stabbed a classmate with a pencil. One neighbor recalled the time Charles Lewin kept Danny in a sustained bear-hug because he didn't know how else to control him.

But what made the family different is that Danny's outbursts weren't attributed to a phase or normal teen-age rebellion. Instead, it was "an impulse control problem."

Charles Lewin, the psychiatrist, had attached a diagnosis and a solution. You never got scolded at the Lewin household. You were taken into another room and interrogated about the root of your problem.

The boys were very much loved by their parents. Each was a gifted musician. Danny took a liking to the violin. And the boys spent much time in the basement in front of a computer on a makeshift wooden desk.

Danny's brilliance was already starting to be noticed.

Next-door neighbor Mike Arthur, who was several years older, remembers when Danny asked for his help to put together a model airplane. Danny needed to completely understand how the model was supposed to be put together before he made any attempt at construction.

"He understood the instructions, but had difficulty translating it to actually putting the parts together - how much glue and the step-by-step nature of the process," Arthur said. "While at the same time, he blew through puzzles and other games that were much more cerebral in nature."

Aliya to Israel

One day, Charles Lewin announced to his family they were going to take a year-long "sabbatical" and move to Israel.

He promptly quit his practice and spent most of his remaining time in Colorado at home with his sons, taking them skiing. Peggy Lewin kept her thriving pediatric practice going.

Charles, the son of a banker, was Jewish but did not practice the religion as a young man. Colleagues in Denver say it was in mid-life that he embraced Zionism and Judaism.

Many say that Charles never intended to come back to the U.S. He had been bitten by the Israel bug, and wanted to make Aliya - a term that means "rising up" to live in the Holy Land.

He dragged the family to Israel kicking and screaming - almost literally. Danny was 15, just starting to fit in at high school. The night before the Lewins left, neighbors Sharon and Jim Menzel remember Danny coming to their house and crying.

Mr. Teenage Israel

Life in a new country wasn't easy for Danny.

He fought with his father and was sent to a kibbutz, or communal farm. But Danny was soon kicked out.

He found salvation in the gym. He could work out his frustrations by lifting weights. In three months, he transformed himself from an awkward teen-ager into a well-honed machine.

It was a turning point. Danny realized he could accomplish something on his own. He had taken control.

He entered a regional body-building competition and won. Then came other wins. Soon he was named Mr. Teenage Israel.

During his senior year, Danny visited Denver. He ended up at his old high school, Cherry Creek, watching the football players train in the weight room. The coach, thinking he was a new player, gave him an endurance test. Danny topped the charts.

One person likened it to the weakling returning as the bully at the beach.

Technical prowess

By the time Danny finished the military, he was ready for a new challenge. Always a good student, he was accepted to the Technion, Israel's premier technology university, as a full-time research fellow and project leader at IBM's research laboratory.

In 1995 he was named the university's outstanding student in computer engineering.

During this time Danny met his future wife, Anne, a Belgian who had moved to Israel after catching the Zionism bug.

Soon Danny's military exploits took a back seat to his intellectual prowess. He presented several breakthrough papers at conferences. His work at IBM and at the Technion got him accepted in 1996 to the prestigious master's and Ph.D. program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study applied mathematics under Professor Thomson Leighton.

Back to the U.S. and MIT

Danny shipped off to the U.S. and moved into family housing at MIT. He poured himself into his studies. It didn't take long for Leighton to realize Danny was special. He always wanted the hardest problems, ones that others couldn't solve. He became a top student among virtual geniuses.

In his first two years at MIT, Danny wrote several outstanding papers as well as a prize-winning master's thesis that became the basis of his company, Akamai.

Danny's life changed when Timothy Berners-Lee, founder of the World Wide Web, realized that congestion on the Internet was becoming an enormous problem. Berners-Lee issued a challenge to Leighton's research group: Invent a better way to deliver Internet content.

Danny's master's thesis solved the problem. An elegant set of algorithms would allow a Web site to distribute data and images from network servers, allowing pages to download faster than previously possible. Before, one server had to handle all the traffic.

To Danny it was just a problem that needed to be solved, rooted in theory. To Leighton, it was a breakthrough that would solve Internet bottlenecking.

Akamai: The beginning

Leighton decided to make Danny's theories a reality.

In 1998, the two established Akamai. Danny looked up the word clever in a Hawaiian dictionary, and Akamai was born. The new company entered a $50,000 MIT entrepreneur contest but came in second. The partners ended up scraping together enough money from relatives and venture capitalists to launch.

Danny got a $20,000 loan from an aunt in New York. Later she was given stock in return and reportedly cashed out for several million dollars.

In the early days of Akamai, Danny questioned every efficiency. After he was told it would take three months to install Akamai's first network, Danny himself installed 200 servers in 11 cities over Christmas vacation, Leighton told the Wall Street Journal.

Just two years earlier, Danny had been living in student housing with two young children on a graduate assistant's salary. He didn't own a credit card, Leighton recalled.

IPO Day

In October 1999, Akamai went public, rising 458 percent on its first day. By January the stock had doubled.

Danny's stake was $3.2 billion. He was 29.

All those around him had become millionaires, but it didn't matter to Danny. On IPO day, he broke up a party in the middle of the office and ordered everyone back to work. They still had to build a company.

Akamai's meteoric rise set the bar for Internet companies. It rode the Internet wave to its peak. Then it slid with the dot-com crash, falling from more than $300 a share to less than a dollar.

Danny sold about $50 million worth of stock. At the time of his death, his 7.3 million shares were worth about $26 million.

Friends said his lifestyle had changed little. He bought the house in Brookline and two motorcycles. He also decided to go back to school and complete his doctorate at MIT.

Danny was brilliant and devoted to his job when the company soared, and just as brilliant and devoted when it crashed. After coming up with the foundation of the company, Danny's role was to sell the idea to potential clients and to hire the best and brightest.

His financial backers and clients got more than just an evangelical salesman with Danny. He could talk both dollars and cents and network speak, unusual in the Internet world.

Todd Dagres, a partner in Battery Ventures, which backed Akamai, told Fortune magazine:

"He was the total package. It's rare to have that kind of technical genius and business acumen in one person."

Contacted this week, Dagres reiterated what he said shortly after Sept. 11, adding that his opinion of Danny has only strengthened.

Danny worked tirelessly.

He often said to his colleagues: "You're behind." It was his way of saying that the bar wasn't high enough, the standards not strict enough. He barked it at everyone, even his MIT professors, Akamai President Paul Sagan recalled in an interview with InfoWorld.

The War Room

Akamai's true test came on Sept. 11, 2001.

Everyone there knew almost immediately that Danny had been on Flight 11.

His colleagues said it was tragic that Danny didn't see the culmination of his work. His vision helped the Internet get to a new level.

"(Sept. 11) was the most challenging day for our company," Leighton told the Boston Globe. "It was also the most successful day for our company."

Akamai's clients - CNN.com, Yahoo!, Nasdaq, Los Angeles Times - logged millions of hits, but users were not bogged down by slow pages or Internet traffic.

The company's competitors didn't have the same luck. Some of the sites that crashed that day are now Akamai's customers.

Behind it all was Danny's algorithm.

"The importance of Danny's vision became abundantly clear in the week of the terror attack. Virtually every major news Web site saw traffic increase 20 or even one-thousand-fold. They and many others relied on Akamai's network to meet audience demand," Sagan said in a tribute printed in Business 2.0.

"In that defining week, the Net took its rightful place alongside other media as a reliable source of news, critical emergency information and comfort, as people remained informed and stayed in contact with loved ones over e-mail and instant messaging. That's part of Danny's legacy."

Remembering Danny

According to Jewish law, families must mourn lost members for one year, and during this time Danny's family has not spoken publicly about him, other than to say that Danny's life was special: both the difficult times in Denver and his successes in the Israeli Army, university and business.

In honor of the Sept. 11 anniversary, Danny's Akamai colleagues will have informal remembrances, a company spokesman said.

Last September, Danny and other Akamai executives had established the Akamai Foundation to support math education in public schools.

A new foundation - the Daniel Lewin Scholarship Fund - was formed after his death. It provides scholarships to students pursuing careers in science.

More than 1,000 people showed up at a memorial service for Danny at MIT. MIT's Leighton tried to sum up Danny's life in his Business 2.0 tribute: "Changing the Internet by age 31 was just a taste of what he would have accomplished in a full lifetime."

Not a day goes by in which Marco Greenberg doesn't think about his friend, but he said Danny wouldn't have wanted him to dwell on Sept. 11.

"He'd look at the future with open eyes and fight this threat and win."

Gil Rudawsky is an assistant business editor. He can be reached at or (303)892-2562.

 
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