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As many in bay area close, some bustle

Several businesses allow workers to be with their families and absorb the shock. One heeds the government's call.

[Times photo: Daniel Wallace]
"Everybody's closing down," says Barbara Murray as she tells World War II vet Albert Mullin about Tuesday's attacks in front of a closed First Union Bank in St. Petersburg.

By KRIS HUNDLEY

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 12, 2001


Home Shopping Network stopped hawking jewelry, clothing and cookware. Capital One's call center in Tampa ordered a halt to all outgoing calls. And Clearwater's Aerosonic Corp. got an urgent fax from the U.S. Department of Defense ordering the aircraft instrumentation company to speed up the shipment and repair of all military contracts.

"We just got the DOD fax," Mervyn Nabors, Aerosonic's president and chief executive, said a little after 3:30 p.m. "All military contracts have been put on full red alert."

The normal workday was suddenly transformed Tuesday as companies across the Tampa Bay area reacted to terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.

Soon after hijacked commercial jets smashed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, local executives scrambled to track down executives who were on the road.

An Aerosonic executive who was on a flight from Germany was diverted to Montreal. A vice president at Tampa's JLM Industries Inc. was in a plane, preparing to land in New York City when it was suddenly turned back to Atlanta. And Dan Dorsch, the president and chief executive of Checkers Drive-In Restaurants Inc., who planned to pilot his small plane to a meeting with franchise consultants in South Carolina on Tuesday afternoon, never got off the ground.

Several companies, among them Walter Industries and Holland & Knight, closed at midday. Others gave employees the option of taking paid leave to pick up kids at school or be with relatives.

"We have not closed the building, but we've given all of our employees the option to get home and ensure that their families are safe and take care of concerns of any loved ones," said Gerry Chastelet, chief executive of Digital Lightwave Inc. in Clearwater. "With the magnitude of this kind of tragedy, people aren't really conducting business. They may be talking to each other, but business isn't forefront in anybody's mind today."

Other businesses tried to be sensitive to the needs of terrified employees while maintaining critical services.

At TECO Energy Inc., it was business as usual for basic electric services. But there was one glitch: the contractor that handles TECO's e-mail payment system took its servers off-line, leaving customers eager to pay their bill by Internet in the lurch.

Though many of the 220 employees at Sykes Enterprises Inc. in Tampa left early on Tuesday, key personnel and executives remained to supervise the company's 42 call centers worldwide.

"We run global network operations centers on a 24/7 basis, and we've had no degradation of our technical capability," said Gerry Rogers, Sykes' chief information officer. Though Rogers said call volume was down early Tuesday, as people were still absorbed by the tragedy, he expected that to change quickly on Tuesday night.

"When customers who are trying to use their e-mail and broadband services find those networks down, our volume will shift substantially," he said.

Some companies found their services suddenly superfluous as the nation focused on the shocking news. Home Shopping Network suspended its programming, as did its competitor, QVC. Benefits administrator Ceridian in St. Petersburg curtailed outgoing phone calls to new customers and avoided making calls to clients in the Northeast.

At Capital One's call center in Tampa, all outbound calls were postponed for a day.

"Particularly collection calls," said Hamilton Holloway, a spokesman for the credit card company. "We didn't feel it would be appropriate while the country is in crisis."

At the Renaissance Vinoy Resort in St. Petersburg, all meetings were canceled after news of the attacks started unfolding. Russ Bond, general manager, said the hotel is at 80 percent capacity with about 500 guests, many of whom extended their stay after all flights were canceled.

"The biggest request," said Bond, "is people want to watch TV and they want to be with other people. That's why we set up a big-screen TV in the ballroom. They're concerned about loved ones, trying to call, and phone lines are jammed."

At the Port of Tampa, officials sent out an advisory to all security personnel to be extra vigilant. As of late morning, the Coast Guard had not ordered additional security measures to hamper the flow of cargo in and out of the port. There were no cruise ships scheduled to arrive in Tampa on Tuesday.

Coincidentally, the Coast Guard was coordinating a mass casualty exercise simulating a cruise ship fire in the port area Tuesday. The emergency crews shut down early after news of the terrorist attacks.

JLM Industries closed its Tampa office, as well as its chemical manufacturing plant in Chicago and terminals in Houston and Wilmington, N.C., after refineries in Texas closed.

JLM, which recently sold additional shares, also canceled two days of talks with new shareholders in New York City, planned for Wednesday and Thursday.

"I'm truthfully wondering what effect this will have on investment," said John MacDonald, JLM's president. "I definitely think the country is in recession, and there's definitely going to be an effect on the U.S. psyche."

At Aerosonic, which makes instruments for commercial and military aircraft, the focus quickly shifted from shock to horror to the work at hand.

Nabors said security had been intensified at the company's plant in Charlottesville, Va., which has a top-secret military contract. And even before the DOD issued its red alert to contractors, Aerosonic's workers felt a new urgency in their jobs.

"I heard one guy said it was time to go back to work and work harder," Nabors said about 11 a.m., as the initial shock of the attacks was wearing off. "He said, "What I'm working on, they're going to need."'

- Times staff writers Scott Barancik, Lennie Bennett and Jeff Harrington contributed to this report. Kris Hundley can be reached at hundley@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2996.

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