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September 18 , 2001 | Last week, a series of well-organized terrorist attacks hit the northeastern United States. From chaotic streets and airplane bathrooms, across America and the Arabic world, nearly all parties involved in the tragedy used mobile phones to distribute news and reach out from extraordinary situations. Many of these conversations took place between the living and the very nearly dead, making the mobile phone an unanticipated means of sharing intimate farewells.

Passengers on the hijacked United Airlines flight 93 called their families from the air using their mobile phones. From those calls they learned of the first commercial airliner attacks on New York. Some said they knew they were likely to die, and were resolved to do something about the terrorists. This plane later crashed into the countryside outside of Pittsburgh. It seems that citizens here saved many lives and another terrorist target in Washington DC because they were able to get mobile phone reports from the ground. This stands as a ringing commendation for mobile phones, but those families will have frantic embattled conversations to remember as the final moments of their loved ones.

After the first airplane hit one of the World Trade Center towers, the gasoline from the airplane immediately heated the skyscraper to untenable temperatures. People trapped in the top floors called their loved ones for a farewell. Unsettling as well as staggeringly sad, the chance to hear a final word from a nearly departed spouse or family-member is a wrenching part of this mobile-phone age. Mobile phones turned these people into intimate news correspondents, reporting from the scene of their encroaching death.

Americans weren't the only folks using mobile phones to stay in touch during these events — mobile phone networks lit up in Arabic countries as well. Some people associated with the terrorists received a text and graphics confirmation message after the attacks. The message read "It hit and did not miss" in Arabic with a picture of an airplane hitting a building. The community news reports from the mobile phones of the people in-part responsible presents a grim contrast to the transcribed last conversations of dying people in the World Trade Center.

This tragedy marked the advent of the mobile-media age where anyone can be a reporter, even on the circumstances of their own demise. The use of wireless devices to share a dying gasp is among the most unsettling and intimate uses of technology we humans have yet witnessed.

The results of being in touch all the time are shocking and may be more than most people might ask for. One family would say only that their phone call from a hostage relative finished when they heard the end of the story. Despite these grisly experiences, people who have heard from their now-deceased loved ones likely feel slightly more comforted than those who heard nothing.


Justin Hall is a globe-trotting freelance writer. You can follow his adventures on

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