Witnessing 9/11 through a mobile & social lens – in 2001

On the morning September 11, 2001, I was boarding a plane in Minneapolis, headed for Dallas to share online research at a Freedom Communications conference. I made it as far as the jetway when the gate agent halted boarding.

For a few moments, we all stood in that soulless tunnel, figuring the delay was any of the inane hassles facing road warriors. Can’t find the crew. Bag left unattended. Last-minute wheelchair passenger. Mechanical whatnot. We made tired, cynical jokes, checked the time and pouted.

But when the gate agent announced we’d have to deplane because “all flights have been grounded,” our banter went dry. We dug cell phones out of our bags – mine was a blue Nokia the size of a C-4 brick – and started making calls.

Nobody knew anything at that point.

By the time I was back in the concourse, the airport had shut off all the CNN monitors; I was told this is policy. (I later used this detail in my novel, “Out of Touch.”) So we all stood there, phones to our ears, learning nothing.

We were in a total news vacuum.  We even started lining up to rebook our flights.

OmniSky modem with Palm V

On a lark, I pulled out my OmniSky modem, which clicked onto the back of my Palm V.  I pulled out the extendable antenna and opened the AvantGo application – an early news app, back when mobile information was tethered to whatever news you could download while updating your calendar, then read offline.

In my Yahoo! channel, I found a breaking-news story about a plane flying into one of the towers at the World Trade Center. No mention of size – from the paragraph, it could have been a jet or a Piper Cherokee. But it was enough.

It was news.

“Hey,” I remember saying, loud enough for the other road warriors to hear, “I think I know why we’re not going to Dallas.”

From that moment on, we forgot about rebooking. Other travelers gathered around my tiny, gray-green monochrome screen, waiting impatiently as the story refreshed pixel by pixel. A picture about as crisp as a QR code showed a tower, a hole, smoke. I handed the PDA around so others could see.

We became a small social network. Other travelers made contact with the outside world and fed information into our circle. With dumb phones and a painfully slow data connection, we pieced the story together. It was a jet. Tower’s on fire. And then: Another jet just hit the other tower.

It was around that time that we were instructed via loudspeaker to evacuate the airport. We walked as a group, handing the PDA back and forth, until we came to the main concourse. A huge clot of people had gathered outside an L.L. Bean store. We joined them.

That’s when we saw the first images that would be burned into our national psyche – on a wall of television screens designed to show scenes of people enjoying the outdoors in high-end khakis and wooly sweaters. While airport management had snuffed the CNN feeds throughout the airport, the store clerks – in an act of heroic news anarchy – tuned their giant commercial into a community news wall.

This week, Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth told a group of journalists that social media would have made 9/11 “more horrific.” People trapped in the tower might have shared video. Passengers might have tweeted their last moments. And so on.

Smarter people than me have responded, some saying that social media would have allowed the victims to tell their own stories, write their own epitaphs. Others have talked about how social media may have helped us heal.

All I know is that, 10 years ago, I learned of 9/11 through makeshift mobile and social media channels – at a time when official channels of news were cut off.

(And why I still have that OmniSky modem.)