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Swissair leverages Web site

When word started trickling out that a Swissair flight had crashed, people hunted around for information, especially online.

    Last night, when word started trickling out that a Swissair flight was lost in the Atlantic off Nova Scotia, people did what they have done to learn more about what's going on: hunt around for information, especially online.

    CNN cut into its programming. So did other networks. News about the crash also hit the Web right away, with everyone from established news sites to people in email lists and newsgroups participating in the discussion and dissemination about the incident.

    Moreover, Swissair altered the front door of its Web site just hours after the crash to provide official information and phone numbers in English, German, and French.

    The airline also provided a contact form for passengers' friends and relatives to fill out and fax.

    If anything, this disaster could serve as a bellwether for how far the Internet has come in a relatively short amount of time. Just two years ago, mainstream news sites were somewhat rare. They also were just beginning to feature instantaneous coverage.

    In addition, the Web sites serve to convey information directly with the public, without the intervention of third parties such as law enforcement or the media.

    Last year, when Princess Diana was killed in a Paris car accident, mainstream sites such as CNN and were quick to respond, while European papers lagged behind. Official Web sites lagged behind even further.

    Even though the information available on Swissair's site is not copious, some have praised the carrier for its rapid response in using the Net as a resource.

    Other companies have used the Net to try to control--and offer--information in the face of a catastrophe.

    Nearly two years ago, juicemaker Odwalla used its site to communicate information in the wake of a death from an E. coli outbreak in its products. (See related story)