Cell phones and Internet convey vivid human stories

Newer technologies give voice to victims, spread information

Survivors phone for help

Terrorism Strikes America

New York City

September 13, 2001|By Andrew Ratner | Andrew Ratner,SUN STAFF

Wireless communications and the Internet played profound roles in the terrorist attacks on the United States - from the accounts of hostages on airplanes and survivors beneath the World Trade Center using cell phones to say goodbye or seek rescue, to the millions of Americans communicating in ways that weren't available to the masses a short time ago.

Just as people huddled around radios for information on World War II, and television altered opinion and policy in the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars, the new forms of telecommunications helped deliver a world-altering event of the new century.

"It's a whole new world, and that's one element of it," said Harry Wessel, a political science professor at Merrimack College near Boston and a writer on telecommunications reform.

Internet news sites continued yesterday to record heavy use. Web sites sprouted memorials, information on blood donations and bulletin boards where people who worked near targets of attack could record for friends and family that they had survived.

Telephone companies, meanwhile, set up temporary cell sites to bypass damaged equipment in or near the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and distributed phones to emergency workers in those areas.

Accounts of people relying on wireless communications to save themselves or bid loved ones farewell were breathtaking. Two police officers and two others who were pulled from the wreckage of the twin towers used cell phones to contact rescue workers. A flight attendant aboard American Airlines Flight 11 called superiors to report that two fellow flight attendants had been stabbed and hijackers had broken into the cockpit, ABC News reported. A stewardess and the head of a public relations firm called family members from hijacked airliners to say goodbye, knowing they were about to die.

On American Airlines Flight 77, Barbara Olson, a conservative television commentator, called her husband, U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson, on a cell phone to tell him that hijackers wielding knives and box cutters had taken over the place - moments before it slammed into the Pentagon.

In Pennsylvania, an emergency dispatcher received a cell-phone call just before 10 a.m. Tuesday from a man who identified himself as a passenger locked in a bathroom aboard United Airlines Flight 93, screaming: "We are being hijacked, we are being hijacked!" The man told dispatchers the plane "was going down" before they lost contact.

Countless users were frustrated when cell calls wouldn't go through, and Web sites froze in the bewildering hours after the terrorist attack. But others recounted how people relied on newfangled devices - and old-fashioned resilience - to reach one another.

Monica Mears, a spokeswoman for Atlanta-based Cingular Wireless, said a fellow employee was able to contact his father and brother, both trade center workers, on their wireless BlackBerry pagers after repeated phone calls failed as Cingular's traffic spiked tenfold in the New York area and fourfold in Washington.

Verizon Corp., meanwhile, made all pay phones free in New York City and allowed incoming calls to them in Manhattan. It had blocked them previously to discourage drug dealers from using those phones.

Larry Babbio, a Verizon executive, choked up during an afternoon news conference as he described employees of a Verizon contractor calling yesterday morning from the roof of the trade center to say they had escaped there after a plane crashed into the floors below. "Obviously, they are presumed dead," Babbio said.

Verizon was scrambling to route service around its flooded center across from the demolished trade center. Power outages also hampered another Verizon site that carries 80 percent of the private circuits to the New York Stock Exchange, Babbio said. He was meeting with city, state and Wall Street officials to assess conditions to reopen the stock market in Lower Manhattan - an area he described as one of the most telecommunications-intensive in the world.

Michael K. Powell, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, said in a statement: "I am grateful for the tireless and heroic efforts of those in the telecommunications industry who are working hard to keep our most fundamental communications systems, such as telephone service, wireless phone service and television service, operating efficiently under the circumstances. This is a difficult time for everyone and we must be patient."

With an estimated 120 million wireless phone subscribers in the country, this was the first major military event in which two-thirds of households communicate with such devices. U.S. wireless use has increased almost sixfold since 1993 - twice as fast as the expansion of the "spectrum" to accommodate those calls, according to Telephia, a wireless research firm in San Francisco.

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