Web connects friends even as phone lines fail

Sun Staff

The first message arrived at 9:37 a.m. Susan McBride had awakened in St. Louis yesterday, excited about a trip to New York City, where she was to be part of a taping for the Iyanla! talk show with her mother and sister. After hearing the news about the attack on the World Trade Center from her car radio, she went home and checked the airlines.

Then she e-mailed the "Teabuds," a private digest of 82 women throughout the United States and Canada who "speak" daily via e-mail.

I thought it was a hoax, like 'War of the Worlds,' and then I realized it wasn't, she wrote. We're heading to the airport, where we'll probably find our flight to NYC has been very delayed, if not canceled. This is like a weird dream.

Within minutes, Barbara Jaye Wilson posted an eerie eyewitness account from lower Manhattan: Everybody is just standing around on Hudson Street gaping at the World Trade Towers. Smoke, flame. I'm shaking.

She was followed by Donna Andrews in Northern Virginia, who could hear the sirens in the distance. The digest's founder, Margery Flax - aka Mom - wrote from New York to say she and her husband were fine.

Finally, Pam Thomson, writing from Canada, sent this plea: Check in please.

One by one, we did. For while phone lines were down most of the day and the Internet was maddeningly slow if one wanted to check for updates on the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, e-mail turned out to be reliable.

Private digests, in particular, proved a remarkably efficient way to take roll. The problem was, if you weren't a member of one already, it was too late to join one yesterday.

These invitation-only digests are an Internet subculture, closed groups that cannot be accessed by non-members. (This makes them distinctive from chat rooms, which anyone can enter.) They can range from tiny - my four college roommates and I had a temporary one to plan our last reunion - to huge, with hundreds of members. Some have quasi-official purposes.

But many are simply a digital version of the backyard fence. People meet and gossip, receiving each other's observations in real time (via instant messages) or with a slight delay, depending on whether subscribers opt for individual e-mails or digests. Via Yahoo! Groups, for example, I receive about three "Teabud" digests a day, each with as many as 25 messages.

Until 9 a.m. yesterday, those digests had offered daily bulletins of our lives - births, deaths, marriages, divorces, job changes, jokes, wine-tastings and the books on our nightstands, the common thread that first united us.

But, with the world plunged into a stark before-and-after scenario, it was immensely comforting to "hear" all those voices.

Here was Donna Andrews again, from her apartment in Northern Virginia.

Maria [Lima] left her office and is going to head over here to my place if she can, she wrote at 11:01 a.m. I can see the top half of the Washington Monument from where I am sitting, so I know that's at least relatively intact ... Since they've been reporting for 15 minutes that another plane was 10 minutes away, heading for D.C., we're all jumping every time a large truck revs or a car backfires.

Doris Ann Norris, a librarian in Fostoria, Ohio, managed to e-mail Maria before she left her apartment, and told us that Maria had heard the explosions at the Pentagon. Susan McBride reported her trip to New York was definitely off.

Diane Plumley, a jewelry designer who lives just outside Manhattan, posted this account at 11:44 a.m: My husband saw everything from the 44th floor of his office building in midtown and is in the process of walking across the Queensboro bridge to get home. I feel physically ill. I was in the World Trade center one hour before it blew up the first time.

Janet Lawson wrote from San Francisco that the Transamerica building was closed, along with local schools. Susan Anderson, a federal employee, was reported safe in Baltimore. (In fact, she didn't know of the Pentagon attack until Jerrilyn Farmer e-mailed her from Los Angeles.) Other women simply offered their prayers - from Dallas, from Omaha, even Vancouver.

Shortly before noon, digest members from coast-to-coast entered a private chat room, a ritual usually reserved for Friday evenings. "Margery-Mom" sent this invitation: There are 20 of us chatting on Instant Messenger right now ... helping everyone get thru this. We'd probably all be lost without the Internet!

Via this live chat, I first learned that some of the subway lines were open again in New York.

Shortly after 4 p.m., Barbara Jay Wilson, who had brought us that initial first-person account, wrote about her first trip outside into the city: [E]verything is different now ... Walking around is surreal. Oddly quiet. Little traffic. Military planes overhead. The big cloud of smoke and dust is moving off to the east.

And still, the digest's members remained in the chat room. No one wanted to lose contact.

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