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‘The biggest news event we’ve ever done’

Published: in Australian News by .

Channel 9’s US Bureau vice president reflects on covering the September 11 terror attacks on the ground and across America, 20 years on.

Sunday, September 9, 2001 — what a great day that was. Lleyton Hewitt won his first Grand Slam title at the US Open in New York. It was an easy victory in the end: 7-6, 6-1, 6-1. Of course it was all live on Nine.

After three weeks in New York, I could travel back to Los Angeles on Monday, September 10, and get back into some normalcy. What I didn't know was that the world was about to change, and Nine's technical abilities were about to be put to the test.

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Tuesday morning September 11 started with an early wake up call. To be technically correct, several calls. I turned on the TVs (what TV person doesn't have several), spent 30 seconds digesting the mayhem, put some pants on and left.

It was around 6.30am Los Angeles time. The drive to the office took an eternity. The LA Bureau, where a few of us would live, work and sleep for the next several days, was to become a factory. A tech factory.

In days before Dejero, in days before group chat, Teams, Zoom or indeed much fibre; 3G was brand new and Google Maps was still six years away. Indeed our world revolved around relationships and the ubiquitous Satellite Uplink Truck.

You see, we still had one cameraman (Andy Felton) and his sidekick reporter (Michael Usher) still in New York. They were planning to depart NY on Tuesday after the US Open to return to Los Angeles. They were physically on a plane, still at the gate when the tragedy unfolded. They talked their way off the plane and started their arduous journey, against the tide, toward Manhattan.

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Meanwhile, back at the tech factory, we were calling in every favour we had, every satellite friend we knew to access "feeds", "raw camera shots" and what was about to become a marathon of live shots from Andy and his reporter.

Conversations on intermittent cell phone calls went something like this:

Andy: "Where is the truck?"

LA9: "It's on the corner of Broadway and Thomas, but police are moving it toward Broadway and Canal. Where are you?"

Andy: "We are on Grand!"

LA9: "OK ... head two blocks south and look for the truck with Metro written on it. Then after that, you need to head to a different truck..."

Repeat, and repeat, and repeat.

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Smoke pours from the World Trade Center after being hit by two planes on the morning of September 11, 2001.

Satellite Trucks were in extreme demand and in an even shorter supply. If at that moment, one was to proclaim that in 20 years the satellite truck would be all but an afterthought, you could have been declared crazy. Next, you'll be telling me we'll be able to use cell phones to record video AND to transmit video. Yeah right!

We had an old school map, a whiteboard smothered in numbers, and fax machines (remember them?) that went through fax paper like a pandemic goes through toilet paper (satellite bookings to all uplinks, carriers and downlinks had to be faxed).

And a room full of phones.

For the most tragic of reasons and through a roller coaster of emotions, the adrenaline flowed for days. We congratulated each other for our work while we cried for humanity.

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In a way, though, we were mostly sheltered and buffered from the reality of what was truly happening. Sometimes being lost in your work can be beneficial, although I suspect, temporary.

Images on a screen were merely a raster of 525 lines that needed to be stabilised, synchronised, routed, and recorded. That was our emotional buffer. Meanwhile, Nine's technical abilities may have been tested, but they passed with honours.

Covered in dust and with smoke in the distance, an unidentified New York City firefighter walks away from Ground Zero after the collapse of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001.

Technology has changed a lot since then. Some say it's now easier. I say it's different. It is however still evolving.

One thing that has not changed is the dedication I see on a daily basis to get the images, tell the story, apply the craft and service our viewers.

So here's a nod to the technology warriors and the news gatherers so that our award winning news teams can craft the stories, however tragic they have been, and with all certainty, will continue to be.

Source: 9News

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