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I first learned of trouble at the World Trade Center from my husband, who watched the second plane’s explosion from inside a Q train on the Manhattan Bridge. He reached me at home on his cell phone. It was only after we had hung up that the thought of him suspended there, above the East River in a subway car, began to unsettle me. Still, I felt curiously calm. He’s fine, I thought. After all, I just talked to him.
Of course, that was no guarantee of anything. Throughout the disasters of Sept. 11, people harnessed communications technology from the most extreme circumstances imaginable. Barbara Olson, a passenger on American Airlines Flight 757, used her cell phone to report early details of the hijacking. Friends and families of workers in the World Trade Center used e-mail to exhort their loved ones to flee the building. Some of those trapped in the rubble used their pagers or cell phones to call for rescue. The sheer density of such exchanges makes the boundary between those inside and outside Tuesday’s disasters seem difficult to establish.
Still, there is an eerie poignancy about those high-tech goodbyes from people trapped inside burning buildings and runaway planes. A similar quality clung to the story of Rob Hall, the leader of a doomed 1996 expedition up Mount Everest. Marooned in a snowstorm, Hall reached his pregnant wife in New Zealand by radiophone, and together they chose a name for their unborn child. The imbalance is almost crushing: if they could hear each other’s voices, name a child, say goodbye, how could he not have been rescued?
We in the developed world have come a long way toward eliminating time and space as determining factors in our lives. We can whisper into the ear of someone across the globe. We can trade intimacies with people whose whereabouts are unknown to us — beside the point, even. Without a doubt, Tuesday’s tragedies showcase the extraordinary rewards of the communications revolution. Yet never have the limits of communication been more stark. One person is inside a burning building and one is outside. Their voices may meet in the digital void, but they can’t pull each other to safety across it.
Copyright (2001) The New York Times Company. Reprinted by Permission. New York Times material may not be used in any manner except for personal reference without the written permission of The New York Times Company.