Never Forget: Traveling with the Xbox team on 9/11

In the home stretch to release the original Xbox, Microsoft developers find themselves in an America forever changed by the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

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Author's Note: The following article comes from Bet on Black: How Microsoft and Xbox Changed Pop Culture, a Shacknews Long Read slated for publication in November.

ON THE MORNING OF SEPTEMBER 11, Pauline Bach fastened Charlie's leash to his collar and set off down the front path. The English yellow Labrador broke into a trot before they reached the sidewalk, and Pauline fell in beside him. He was excited, and she couldn't blame him. This was their semi-daily ritual: A three-to-five mile run, deep lungfuls of fresh air, and the tranquil stillness of early morning as Seattle woke up around them.

Robbie Bach addresses a crowd of consumers and press.
Robbie Bach addresses a crowd of consumers and press.

Before they could hit their stride, a neighbor beckoned Pauline over. "Did you hear about what happened in New York?"

For a moment, Pauline listened in shock as her neighbor described something horrible. Impossible. Then reality cut through: Robbie was flying into New York.

Turning on her heel, she raced back to the house and dialed her husband's cell phone with shaking fingers. A series of measured, dispassionate beeps turned her blood to ice.

Pauline hung up and scoured her brain for the number to his hotel. Had his assistant given her the number?

She dialed his cell again.

Beep. Beep. Beep.


A FEW MILES away, John Howard went through his own routine, one he had followed for the past 14 months. Shower. Dress. Go to Bungie's building on Microsoft's campus. Work 12 hours or more on Halo so it was ready to ship alongside the Xbox on November 8. Eat dinner in the office.

Dinner was the only variable in his schedule. On Mondays, they ordered sandwiches from Subway. Tuesday: Thai. Wednesday: Indian. Thursday: Chinese. Friday: Pizza.

As he dressed, he wondered idly what he'd eat tonight. He racked his brain but came up empty. He'd lost track of the days again. Once, he'd marked the passage of time by when he did laundry. Laundry day, like other normal activities, was a thing of the past. "I ran out of clothes and thought, I could do laundry, but it would be faster to go the store and buy underwear. I didn't have time for laundry. I said to myself, 'I'll do laundry when we ship.'"

Halo: Combat Evolved.
Halo: Combat Evolved.

He hoped it wasn't Thursday. Everyone at Bungie agreed the Chinese place they ordered from was awful, but food was fuel, and he would need it. Halo had entered the do-or-die stretch of development where tough decisions needed to be made, such as the mandate that either the shotgun or sniper rifle would have to be cut; the development team only had time to implement one or the other. As lead designer, John Howard would be involved in most of them.

Tuesday. He brightened. It was Tuesday, and that meant Thai food and something to look forward to after work. On the nights he was too exhausted to think, he came home and crashed. Tonight, he'd meet friends at a bar and have a few drinks. Then he'd come home and crash.

Five minutes later—as per the ritual—he was ready for work. The news played on his TV, his only connection to what was happening outside the walls of Bungie. At the sight of the World Trade Center's Twin Towers, he paused. The North Tower burned. Smoke gushed from its shattered facade and plumed into the sky. Howard sat and stared as a second plane flew out of nowhere and struck the South Tower.

Howard stood up. Turned off the TV. Stared at the blank screen. His brow furrowed. Neurons fired. Ideally, they would coalesce into a thought. Thought would lead to emotion. Emotion would carry with it a response to what he had seen. Instead, those neurons popped off and fizzled like isolated fireworks.

"That's weird," he said at last. Then he left for work.

"It was only when I got to the office and started talking to friends on the team who had friends and family on the east coast that the enormity of the event even registered."


EIGHT HUNDRED MILES south in San Francisco, Ed Fries woke early, showered, dressed, and reviewed his schedule. Xbox would launch in just under two months, and as vice president of games publishing at Microsoft, he faced a full day of interviews with reporters from newspapers and magazines, who needed the lead time to prepare their coverage in time for November.

He had time to kill before heading downstairs, but rather than turn on the news, he left his hotel room early and took the elevator down to the lobby. The moment the doors opened, he knew something was wrong. The lobby was quiet and mostly empty. Nearby, a small crowd stood clustered around a group of televisions. No one spoke.

"I walked over to one of the TVs, and that was between one plane crash and the next," Fries says.


Classic titles on the original Xbox.
Classic titles on the original Xbox.

SEAMUS BLACKLEY STIRRED in his seat. It was leather, one of several amenities JetBlue had rolled out along with lower fares and more legroom, but he neither registered the upholstery nor cared.

Hours ago, he'd checked an enormous Anvil case holding five prototype Xbox consoles at the ticket counter, stumbled onto the plane, dropped into his window seat, and fallen asleep. He was in the middle of a press tour, a gauntlet that had taken him all over the country and around the world more than once and likely would again. Blackley had intended to catch a flight to Manhattan on United Airlines, but the new demos he wanted to show off had been running behind, so he'd canceled that flight and booked a red-eye offered by JetBlue.

Something jolted him awake. He blinked and squinted around the plane. Everyone was silent and sitting stiffly in their seats. Attendants stood frozen in the aisle. Every pair of eyes was glued to the screens embedded in the seatbacks in front of them. Monitors embedded in seatbacks weren't a new feature on airlines, but JetBlue was the first airline to provide live television. "That was their big thing," Blackley says. "You were sealed in a tube without any idea what the news was except on JetBlue."

Blackley's monitor was tuned to CNN, and it showed the Twin Towers, and they—he blinked—appeared to be burning. Blackley turned to his seatmate. The man's mouth hung open. His eyes bulged. Blackley turned back to his screen, then looked out his window. Far below, Manhattan stood like a miniature city surrounded by glassy water. He scanned the cityscape until his eyes latched onto the Twin Towers and, yes, one of them was burning.

A second plane streaked through the air on a collision course with the second tower. In the plane, silence. The plane struck.

In the plane, pandemonium: gasps that rose to screams, Blackley's seatmate shouting unintelligibly, and a flight attendant fainting in the aisle.

Speakers crackled overhead. The captain spoke in a crisp tone. "I'm ex-Air Force. We're going to be okay. I'm getting us out of here."

The plane banked, climbed, then swooped downward.


ROBBIE BACH ALSO left Seattle the night of the 10th, but his redeye landed hours earlier, touching down at JFK International around six thirty on the morning of September 11.

Life, he reflected in the cab ride to the Marriott Marquis, was crazy. Xbox's launch creeped ever onward. He had a press tour that would start that afternoon near the World Trade Center. His first appointment, the Wall Street Journal, would kick off long days of interviews in which he would pretend that everything at Microsoft was proceeding apace when in fact everything—teams, hardware components, software lineups, meeting schedules—seemed to go up in flames.

Marriott Marquis in New York.
Marriott Marquis in New York.

Bach dragged his luggage up to his room at the Marriott Marquis—"a lovely hotel I have not been to since"—and went to bed. He awoke three hours later, just after nine, and hopped in the shower. His phone rang as he toweled off.

"Robbie," a somber voice said. It was the chief legal counsel for their PR agency. "Your press tour has been canceled," he continued. "I want you to know that my offices are across the street. If there's anything you need while you're in New York, just let me know."

"What are you talking about?" Bach said.

More silence. "Turn on your TV."

Bach sat in front of his television for hours. The news was horrific. Planes hijacked and flown into the Twin Towers. Another plane hijacked and used to attack the Pentagon. Numbly, he called to order room service, but employees on the lunch and dinner shifts could not reach the island. Instead, he and the other guests were invited down to brunch in the restaurant where all the food had been laid out in a spread. "You went down and grabbed whatever food you wanted," he remembers.

Back in his room, Bach continued trying to reach his wife and family. Phone lines were still down. After hours of trying, he got through to his mother in North Carolina, who phoned Pauline to let her know Robbie was safe. That night, a friend got through and asked Bach where he was staying. When he gave his hotel name and explained its proximity to the Twin Towers—which had collapsed hours before in a pile of rubble—his friend replied, "What are you doing in Times Square? That could be where the next attack is. You never know."

Oh, great, Bach recalls thinking as they hung up. He had to get home. Fortunately, James Bernard had a plan. Bernard was the head of PR for Xbox at Microsoft and had been in traffic in a cab on his way to prep for the one o'clock meeting with the Wall Street Journal when the planes hit. With traffic deadlocked, Bernard got out of the cab, walked 20-some blocks to his hotel, and reserved a Ford Taurus at Hertz for the next morning. Then he called Bach. "James and I were able to connect via landline, and I had a pager, if you can believe that," Bach says.

The Lounge at the Marriott Marquis.
The Lounge at the Marriott Marquis.

Bernard had booked his car before the mad rush to leave the city and welcomed Bach to join him on a cross-country trip nearly 3,000 miles back to Seattle. Bach agreed and arranged for two others to come along. The first was April McKee, another member of Xbox marketing at Microsoft, whose hotel was close enough to Ground Zero that police had set up security lines to keep anyone from getting close to the rubble, where search-and-rescue efforts were ongoing. Craig Suhrbier would be the fourth member of their ad hoc crew. Bach knew Suhrbier from his men's group at their church in Seattle.

With plans made and nowhere to go until the next morning, Bach pulled one of the Dick Francis mystery novels out of his suitcase and read. When he finished it, he read the second Francis novel he'd packed. He looked up after sunset, put down his book, and went to the window.

"Every light in Times Square was on, and there wasn't a single person there."

Around six a.m., Bernard returned to Hertz. Dozens of people formed a sinuous line to the counter where frazzled agents explained that no cars were available. Bernard picked up his keys, climbed into his Taurus, and drove to the Marriott Marquis to prepare for what they hoped would be a quick road trip.

"The plan was we were going to make reservations from all the airports along the way, hoping the airport system would open up," Bach says. "Nobody really understood the severity of what was going on or where things stood."

From the Marquis, they drove south to pick up April McKee, then met up with Craig Suhrbier in Midtown. They followed traffic across the George Washington Bridge and took I-80 to I-76 West toward Pittsburgh. Between them, they had five cell phones, a pager, four laptops, several novels, a tank of gas, and a lot of time to fill.


BLACKLEY HAD FRIENDS in odd places. After a harried landing in Buffalo, he got in touch with Ed Robertson, front man for the Barenaked Ladies, who was in the area and sent a car to pick up Blackley and take him to stay with his family in Toronto. "That was my 9/11," he says. "Fucking terrifying."

Blackley unwound for a few hours, spending time with Robertson and getting his thoughts in order. Getting home would be a problem. The fallout from 9/11 had begun: Airports tightened security, and no way would Blackley be able to get his anvil case loaded with Xbox consoles through TSA's checkpoints. He reserved a seat on an Air Canada flight to Vancouver. From there he'd take a cab to the border where fellow Xbox co-creator Kevin Bachus would meet him.

Dwayne
Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson had joined Bill Gates months earlier to unveil the Xbox as the 2001 Consumer Electronics Show.

Before he left Robertson's place, Blackley received a call from another friend, this one a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Believing the reporter was calling to check up on him, he chatted with the guy, who asked if Blackley thought the terrorists could have trained with Microsoft Flight Simulator or similar software. Believing his friend was making conversation and in no state of mind to think otherwise, Blackley, as known for his skill in aviation as he was in game development, talked off the cuff. He put the call out of mind the moment they hung up.

His plan to get home to Seattle worked right until he reached the border between Canada and the U.S. Suspicious of travelers coming from or going to the States, the guards glared at Blackley's Anvil case. Then one of them smiled. "You're Seamus! Are those Xboxes?"

Blackley couldn't believe his luck. Of all the places to be recognized from the television, magazine, newspaper, and website interviews he'd done, he had found his people where he needed them most.

"The border guards knew what Xbox was and made me take it out, and maybe even plug it in; I can't remember," he says. "It was kind of great. I'd been doing so much press. Some of it was negative because I'd become a face of Microsoft so I took a lot of abuse. But I'd also find gamers. They'd come up to me, introduce themselves, and hug me, and it was super-great. That was one of those great experiences."


BACH, BERNARD, MCKEE, and Suhrbier drove until they arrived in Pittsburgh, the city where they had booked one flight, that evening. The flight was a bust. They ate dinner, swung by a Radio Shack to pick up a multi-phone charger, and picked up sweatshirts to endure the cool weather. As they made their way onto I-90, they watched as a long line of cars snaked toward the drive-thru of a Krispy Kreme that had opened nearby. Donuts sounded delicious. Getting home sounded divine.

Next stop: Chicago, flight reservations for a nine a.m. flight waited.

Around two thirty a.m., they entered Chicago and stayed at a Best Western. They agreed to stay long enough to get a few hours' sleep in a bed, then leave for the airport at six-thirty. Their flight was canceled. "We concluded that this stop-at-the-airport routine wasn't going to work, and we said, 'We're going to drive. We're going to drive all the way through,'" remembers Bach.

They drove straight through, taking shifts: on two hours, off two hours. Anyone not behind the wheel dozed, or read, or made calls on cellphones, or unpacked laptops and attempted to get work done—nearly impossible, given the cramped quarters of the car and the occasions where everyone placed calls at once and had to raise their voices to be heard or curl in on themselves and speak in a low tone so as not to disturb the others. They flipped between AM radio stations to keep up with news from New York City, talked about Microsoft, about their families, about the sights passing in a blur outside the vehicle as they entered South Dakota.

"South Dakota, by the way, is a really big state, and there is not a lot there," Bach comments.

Reaching Rapid City, the group stopped at Mount Rushmore Mall for dinner. After a meal of bad Chinese food, they cruised the corridors and spotted Xbox signage and cardboard standees in the display of a Software Etc., a popular chain of stores for computer and video games. The sight of Xbox marketing materials rejuvenated Bach, Bernard, and McKee. Their schedules had been so frantic for so long that it was easy to forget that one day, there would be consoles in the empty boxes and game discs in all the green cases behind the counter.

Derek Barnes, who managed the store, introduced himself and gushed about Xbox. He was stoked for the new console, and the three Xbox employees were equally excited to talk to him about the system. "It was really cool," Bach says of the impromptu conversation. "He was telling us which games he liked, and was excited about Halo, and thought NFL Fever was going to be good," although, Barnes added, Halo and Dead or Alive 3 were leading pre-orders at his store.

A Software, Etc. storefront.
A Software, Etc. storefront.

Before hitting the road, the group bought pillows at Target—all had stiff necks from leaning against windows or curved seatbacks—and an Instamatic, 24-shot camera; none of them had brought a camera for a business trip, and cameras on cell phones had not developed past grainy, thumbnail-sized pics. Then they went back to Derek's store. "We took some photos there and exchanged business cards, and when we got back, I sent him a note saying thank you for greeting us and that I hoped things were going well," Bach says. "At that time, he was in his early 20s. Five or six years later, he wrote me and said, 'I just got married.' Life happens."

They stopped again at an IHOP in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, where they shoved food into their mouths and got back on the road. On the morning of Friday, September 14, they listened in silence to President George W. Bush's remarks during a memorial service for the victims of 9/11 at the National Cathedral in Washington.

"This was a war started by others at a time unknown to us,'' President Bush said. "It will end in a way and at an hour of our choosing.''

During one of Bach's shifts, he and the others got a sense of the country's mood following the attacks. "I'm driving through Wyoming, and the headline for the radio show was 'Midnight Cowboys' or something. The host comes on and he says, 'Tonight's topic: Catch 'Em, Shoot 'Em, or Catch 'Em and Shoot 'Em.' You sort of get a sense of where things were."

Around noon on Friday, September 14, they arrived in Seattle. Bach greeted his family, got some sleep, and then went into the office, where the fallout from 9/11 had spilled into Microsoft and the games group.


AFTER DELIBERATING BETWEEN canceling the press tour in San Francisco or moving forward with it, Ed Fries and his Xbox companions called around to press outlets to find out what they wanted to do. Most dropped out. One game magazine agreed to receive them; Fries recalls the visit being "somber." The attacks had happened only hours before, and the country was shaken to its core.

Box artwork for Project Gotham Racing.
Box artwork for Project Gotham Racing.

With their one and only appearance behind them, Fries and his group turned their attention to getting back to Seattle. Flights were grounded and phone lines overloaded with calls. Four days later, at three in the morning, Fries finally reached a travel agent using a special number he carried as a frequent flier. He reached the airport to find it deserted. "The flight I took to Seattle was half full. I'm sure there were a ton of people who wanted to get on it, but the system was screwed up," he says.

Controversy greeted him, too. Less than 24 hours after the attacks, federal agents had searched records at flight schools across the country, convinced a paper trail would reveal more about the terrorists and the training they had received. Experts in aviation explained that anyone willing to pay four grand could take a class to learn the fundamentals of flying a plane. A pilot's course would take a few weeks or months, after which anyone need only log additional hours in a flight simulator to familiarize themselves with an aircraft's instrumentation.

In fact, these experts continued, the terrorists may not have needed to learn maneuvers such as how to take off and land. They had waited for the planes to reach cruising altitudes of 35,000 feet or more before hijacking them. And there was no need to learn how to land. All they would need to do was take control of cockpits and fly, feats made possible thanks to the increasing realism of programs such as Microsoft Flight Simulator.

That part of the terrorists' plan would take up the bulk of their training, according to an aviation expert interviewed by the Los Angeles Times. "When you’re going 400 knots, you have to be in the right trajectory from more than a mile out to hit your target. Those buildings may be big, but at high altitudes, they look like needles. These guys had one shot to get it right. They had to have some serious, expensive training."

To the horror of Microsoft executives, the paper's expert was Seamus Blackley.

The Twin Towers in Microsoft Flight Simulator 2000.
The Twin Towers in Microsoft Flight Simulator 2000.

Blackley's quote had spread through the company by the time he, Fries, Bach, and others reached the office. He was shocked and deeply hurt that what he'd thought was a conversation to a friend had, in fact, been background used for a story. "That was incredibly bad. I had this horrible experience of being upset about 9/11 and then thinking I was going to get fired."

Blackley's job was safe, but Bach and Fries still had to go into damage-control mode. New reports ran footage from Microsoft Flight Simulator 2000, the latest iteration of the bestselling franchise, showing the terrorists' view of the cockpit. Company representatives said their product could only hone the skills of pilots who had gone through life training; Flight Simulator could not serve as a substitute. The damage was done. Virgin Megastores and Woolworths—which inexplicably carried video games—pulled software that depicted the World Trade Center, such as Microsoft Flight Simulator 2000 and City Crisis for the PlayStation 2, from shelves.

Project Gotham Racing.
Project Gotham Racing.

Within Microsoft, managers held meetings to determine what should be done. The World Trade Center would no longer depict the Twin Towers out of respect for those who lost their lives in the attacks and the rescue attempts that followed. There were upcoming projects to consider. "One of our main projects, Project Gotham Racing, included driving through downtown New York, and you drove past the Twin Towers," Fries explains. "What do we do about that? I remember being a couple of weeks from a code freeze. Do we leave the Twin Towers in? Do we take them out?"

Although Bach was Chief Xbox Officer, he typically deferred to Fries in matters of games and software. This time, Bach made the call: The developers should scrub the Twin Towers from the game. "I was happy to have him make that decision," continues Fries, who likewise deferred to his boss on subjects of marketing. "I didn't really know what the right thing to do was. He helped guide us through what were the right things to do and say to the press around those products."

Amid professional turmoil, Robbie Bach suffered personal turmoil. He knew he wasn't alone. A malaise settled over all 50 States. The airline industry, already hurting before 9/11, suffered more financial damage as share prices fell and most citizens understandably opted not to fly. In the week following the attacks, hotels in New York City laid off 3,000 employees after occupancy declined over 40 percent.

But Bach remained optimistic. After returning to Microsoft, he poured his heart into a written account of his road trip and forwarded it to everyone in the company.

Perhaps in all of this narrative, he concluded, you’ve lost track of why I wrote this epistle. I’ve lived all over the US. I grew up in the Midwest, went to High School and College in North Carolina, and lived in Florida, Washington DC, New York, and California before coming to Seattle. But this was the first time I’ve driven across the country and really seen America. And I realized that somehow during the last 13 years in Seattle, I’ve lost track of some very basic truths about our country. Our country is a place of amazing diversity – diversity in people, land, customs, faiths, ethnic backgrounds, and many other areas. Events in New York and Washington, DC, along with our sojourn across the country, reminded me how important that diversity is. It showed me how we can use that diversity as our strength…as a way to unite us together in a clear cause for justice and peace. And it reminded me that our diversity and liberty are not “free”. They are treasures we have to earn and fight for each and every day. So as you go through the coming days, take nothing for granted, cherish those you love and what you have been given, share it freely with others, think about those that have gone before you, and be prepared to defend and fight for your freedom. God Bless America.

"He wrote this beautiful email to the whole team about his experience coming across America: the people he met, the spirit of America, coming together around this. It was really well done," says Fries.

As weeks wore on, the immediacy of the attacks faded, and the team turned its attention to the next hurdle: Shipping the Xbox.


Citations

either the shotgun or sniper rifle would have to be cut: "The Making of Halo: How Combat Evolved from Blam! Part 2," Medium, https://medium.com/@Oozer3993/the-making-of-halo-how-combat-evolved-from-blam-part-2-6bfeabde0f90.

one of several amenities JetBlue had rolled out: "JetBlue Airways Completes Acquisition Of LiveTV, LLC," JetBlue, http://mediaroom.jetblue.com/investor-relations/press-releases/2002/09-27-2002-015155713#:~:text=JetBlue%20has%20offered%20customers%20LiveTV,%2439%20million%20of%20LiveTV%20debt.

the first airline to provide live television: Ibid.

This was a war started by others at a time unknown to us: "Bush Leads Memorial Service for Victims of Terror Attack," New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2001/09/14/national/bush-leads-memorial-service-for-victims-of-terror-attack.html.

federal agents had searched records at flight schools: "Hijackers Likely Took Flight Classes in U.S.," Los Angeles Times, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2001-sep-13-mn-45279-story.html.

reports ran footage from Microsoft Flight Simulator 2000: "Microsoft Flight Simulator in Terrorist Controversy," IT Pro Today, https://www.itprotoday.com/windows-78/microsoft-flight-simulator-terrorist-controversy.

hotels in New York City laid off 3,000 employees: "9/11 by the numbers," Hotel News Now, https://hotelnewsnow.com/Articles/12109/9-11-by-the-numbers.

Perhaps in all of this narrative: Robbie Bach, Chief Xbox Officer, email shared with the author, August 2020.

Long Reads Editor

David L. Craddock writes fiction, nonfiction, and grocery lists. He is the author of the Stay Awhile and Listen series, and the Gairden Chronicles series of fantasy novels for young adults. Outside of writing, he enjoys playing Mario, Zelda, and Dark Souls games, and will be happy to discuss at length the myriad reasons why Dark Souls 2 is the best in the series. Follow him online at davidlcraddock.com and @davidlcraddock.

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