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Joan Gage Headshot

Living And Dying On A Cell Phone

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On Monday, I was in the waiting room of a doctor's office when the receptionist got a call from her son, 40 miles away at the end of the Boston Marathon. "He says there were two explosions at the finish line," she reported. "I told him there's nothing about it yet on the computer."

He'd called to tell her he was all right. When I got home from the doctor, I sat down in front of CNN and watched, transfixed, for the next six hours or so. I knew a number of people -- all much younger than myself -- who might have been there. My daughter, who lives in San Francisco and used to live in Boston, called me when she got out of work. She and her friends were at the finish line of last year's Marathon. I told her that the cell phone service was down in the area surrounding the blast. Some TV announcers said this was due to overload... runners were calling family members and vice-versa. Where were they? What had just happened? Were they OK? The fears mounted as the hours wore on without answers.

Then, some people on the TV began saying that phone service had been cut in the area of the attack to prevent more bombs from being detonated, in case the first two had been set off by a cell phone. (They've since reported the two bombs that went off were not that sophisticated, but rather primitive bombs made from pressure cookers that did not involve cell phone signals.)

When their cell phone calls didn't work, people my kids' age turned to texting and Twitter and Facebook. Tuesday night, as I looked at my own Facebook page, I, and everybody else, read about nearly miraculous survivals -- like one of my Pilates instructors, running for charity, who wrote: "I finished right before it happened. Jon and three kids cleared out of grandstands with three minutes to spare. Thank you God... so much." Another post I saw on Facebook said: "So, so thankful my best friend is doing well after surviving a bombing, hospitalization, tons of stitches and a FBI investigation -- And she still looks beautiful after. Love you!"

Then there's the ghastly graphic photo, posted several times on Facebook, of the runner who's had both legs blasted off below the knee, except for one long, protruding bone. (I didn't post this photo, nor did any of the papers or magazines I saw, because it's so horrific, but it's all over the Internet.) The desperately-wounded runner is being pushed in a wheelchair by three good samaritans, who are at the same time putting pressure on his legs so he doesn't bleed to death before reaching the hospital. One of them, wearing a cowboy hat, is Carlos Arredondo, who lost a son in Iraq and is now a peace activist. He is one of the many bystanders who, after the second explosion, ran towards the victims instead of away. As someone commented on the photo: "He's actually pinching this man's femoral artery closed with his bare hands. Honorary citizenship for this guy!" Carlos was also photographed later holding an American flag, his jacket splashed with the blood of the people he aided.

Carlos Arredondo is only one of the heroes of this massacre, whom I feel I know personally after watching their courage and humanity online, on TV and via cell phone.

I am so old that I remember when every telephone was connected to a wall and had a rotating dial. (I even remember phones with party lines and phones you had to crank to get the operator's attention!)

When I was growing up, there was no easy way to check on absent loved ones. When I traveled around Europe in the summer of my 18th year, the only way to communicate with my parents was by letter -- I would pick up theirs at American Express offices in various cities. When my youngest daughter lived in France during a junior year abroad, traveled to Amsterdam and then dropped out of sight for four days, I became hysterical, convinced she was dead, until she finally found a way to call home.

Now, thanks to our ever-present cell phones and the Internet, we can share our tragedies as they are happening and also reassure loved ones that we're OK. Thanks to the cameras in our smart phones, we can bear witness to instances of heroism, and perhaps record something that will help the FBI find clues to the murderer who planted the bombs.

When hope is gone, as happened with the victims of 9/11, we can say, "goodbye" and "I love you." The downside of this instantaneous connection is all the rumors, bad information and paranoid fantasies that can be transmitted from witnesses to cell phones to Internet to TV screen within seconds, as happened yesterday. This is where journalists must come in -- to double-check the facts and stop the rumors.

But, every time evil springs up and takes innocent lives, in this age of instant universal communication, I think the good of the cell phone outweighs the bad. The Boston Marathon bombings will be remembered not for the perpetrators, whoever they may be, but for the way the throng of people gathered in Boston from around the world ran toward the explosions and tore down the fences to help the victims instead of running away.

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