Dial *P for Panic

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Shaun Stanley/AP

Rapid response: Cell phones provided a quick link between kids caught in the Littleton crossfire and the outside world

In the wake of the Littleton massacre, a few heroes have already been anointed: William "Dave" Sanders, 47, the coach and teacher who lost his own life shielding students while they escaped. The classmate of Aaron Cohn's who, as hell erupted in the library, threw herself on the ballplayer's back to hide his team-insignia T-shirt from the jock-hunting gunmen. And the cell phone.

Yes, the cell phone. Knee-jerk reactions to Littleton have already lit a fire under long-dead gun control legislation, as well as measures to increase school counseling. But as eyewitness reports of the massacre continue to emerge, it's the cell phone -- that supremely convenient and supremely annoying appendage of the super-connected '90s -- that's taking on a warm and fuzzy glow.

"I'm OK, but I'm hiding," one son was able to tell his worried mother. Thirty students huddled in the choir room were able to tell authorities where they were. Belita Bennett paged her two sons, and they borrowed cell phones to call her back: "It's cool, Mom," Steve Bennett told her. "We're OK." "I normally don't like cell phones," Ms. Bennett told the Associated Press afterward, "but they were a miracle worker that day."

They never used to be. Cell phones were just one more reason to make fun of Hollywood producers as they jabbered away about "doing lunch" while their convertibles sat in L.A. traffic. Then it was the stockbrokers, then anyone for whom pretentiousness could be considered a good career move. But the stigma is fading fast; schoolkids like those at Columbine High are the fastest-growing segment of cell phone users -- often at their parents' urging. Mom stuck in traffic? Jenny's date running late? For parents already feeling guilty about their two-career household, the cell phone is peace of mind and a conscience salve -- and increasingly, one that's very reasonably priced. In Africa, where infrastructure and land lines are hard to come by, the cellular is de rigueur. And when the first thing Kosovar refugees want is to recharge their Nokias, it becomes obvious that the handheld isn't just for Hollywood honchos.

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