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The Starting Line: Tech investors knocked numb by plane attacks

The silence at two major technology investment conferences said it all as speeches from executives and analysts were replaced by worries about Wall Street.

SAN FRANCISCO--Few places Tuesday morning on the West Coast felt the World Trade Center shockwaves more than the Palace and Ritz-Carlton hotels.

Media coverage of the World Trade Center attacks featured powerful reactions and sentiments, but judging solely by noise and buzz, no one could feel anything at all in the hotels, hosts to a pair of tech-heavy investment shows. Lehman Brothers' semiconductor conference was in its second day at the Palace, while Banc of America Securities' 31st annual investment conference was scheduled at its usual lodging in the Ritz-Carlton.

The quiet at both gatherings said more than anything else. Investment conferences normally radiate enough energy to light a skyscraper, but on Tuesday morning, the only heat came from cups of coffee and big-screen televisions showing the same pictures of billowing smoke and dust.

Had Tuesday been a normal day, those screens would have been showing slides of soon-to-be-forgotten charts and product pictures. The speakers shouldn't have been the tense voices of TV news anchors, but droning speeches from chief financial officers or analysts.

Formal presentations and breakout sessions? Don't even think about it. Not that anybody was.

It should have been Lehman Brothers analyst Dan Niles rattling off chip industry forecasts at 8 a.m. as people sat around with attention equally divided between the PowerPoint show and Wall Street Journals spread out before them. Instead it was ABC's Peter Jennings booming at a line of coffee-drinking suits standing in the back of the Palace's Grand Ballroom despite a plethora of empty seats.

Several blocks away at the Ritz-Carlton's Salon I, it should have been Qwest Communications talking about 271 long-distance testing and DSL rollouts. But CNN's Judy Woodruff loomed over the room.

"The conference is just..." Banc of America Securities spokesman John Roehm said, as he shook his head and made a dismissive gesture.

Snippets of conversation reflected the same attitude. Who cares about industry sectors? There were far more important things to think about:

    • "I want to make sure our people are all right."

    • "I live in Manhattan; I don't want to go home to that mess."

    • "I talked to her, she's OK, she evacuated."

    • "I think he was on that flight. F**k."

There were occasional off-hand remarks--"What do you think about all those little airport security stocks?"; "Oh, they'll be up tomorrow"--but for the most part, their listless tone wasn't about malicious humor, but rather the need to talk something else, anything else. Trading perceived witticisms about Carly Fiorina and Compaq--Monday's main target of jest at the Lehman conference--is much easier on the nerves than staring at yet another camera shot of debris raining on Wall Street.

It was only natural, for the shock to be especially palpable in a gathering of analysts and fund managers. Manhattan is the center of the U.S. financial world, and downtown Manhattan remains home to some of Wall Street's biggest names.

Morgan Stanley, though its corporate headquarters is in midtown, took up 50 stories of the World Trade Center. Cantor Fitzgerald, one of the largest trading operations in the world, occupied several floors high up. The host of the Ritz-Carlton event, Bank of America Securities, had an office across the street. The World Financial Center houses Lehman, Merrill Lynch and American Express. A few streets away, more than 3,000 traders and specialists work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. And hundreds of smaller firms have an office in the area.

Safe to say that everyone attending these conferences knows at least a few people who work in that part of Manhattan.

By midmorning, much of the attention had moved on from the initial news. With the conference schedules abandoned, more people seemed concerned with finding ways out. For every person entering the Ritz-Carlton's elevator to Bank of America's main conference rooms, three or four were leaving and looking for a taxi or a flight.

There wasn't really anything to do--weren't any flights to be had at the moment, with air travel shut down across the country. San Francisco's streets were eerily empty, with many workers taking the option to go home or stay home. And there wasn't any trading to be done, with the U.S. markets shut down.

Conference refugees weren't complaining, or, for that matter, talking much at all. Certainly not about stocks.