9/11: 20 years on

This year, the world marks the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks in the United States. At 8.46am on Tuesday, 11th September, the first plane hit the North Tower of New York's World Trade Center. On the other side of the world, the time was 10.46pm and most Australians were preparing for bed. But as news of the attacks broke, the nation turned to the Australian media for answers on what would become one of the worst terror attacks in modern history.

Here are the stories of the Australian journalists who covered the 9/11 terror attacks from the United States. 

Michael Usher, Presenter at 7NEWS Sydney
"New York City has been sealed. The Twin Towers are down. All bridges and tunnels closed. The Pentagon is burning. Another passenger jet is missing. The President is in hiding, location undisclosed." I remember reporting this line live on air, from the dust and debris-filled streets of Lower Manhattan, in the deeply confusing aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

As the US Correspondent based in Los Angeles, I’d been in New York covering Lleyton Hewitt’s US Open win. He was on top of the world. Manhattan glistened on a post-card perfect, clear September morning. I’d only just remarked to my cameraman how lucky we were to be in this amazing city, on a magic morning, covering a good news story. Then the world turned, and we all buckled with shock and disbelief as those planes tore into the Twin Towers.

Against a shocked human tide, pushing their way out of Lower Manhattan, my cameraman and I squeezed against the exodus and scrambled to within a few hundred metres of ground zero. We commandeered a satellite truck, and in the chaos, just started going live. It wasn’t great reporting. But I just kept talking. What I saw, I said. And at times, I just couldn’t understand nor make sense of anything. Like late night viewers back in Australia, I was overwhelmed by the calamity and catastrophe and atrocity. Of every word I could grab from my mind and regurgitate, none could really describe the scale of what I was seeing and experiencing.

Communications were down. Mobile phones, dead. Most of the transmitters were on top of the World Trade Center, with all other lines commandeered in the emergency response. I’d quickly convinced a local shop owner to sell me a transistor radio before he pulled the shutter down and ran. In one ear I plugged in 1010Wins - a local New York news station, so I could hear rolling news conferences - in the other ear I had the network’s IFB, so I could hear the studio back in Sydney. I just remember thinking this was Armageddon. A terrible cliché, I know, but if this wasn’t, what was? At the very least I knew this meant war.

We stayed on location for days, sealed into the ground zero area by the NYPD. If you were in, you stayed in. So we grabbed sleep when we could on the pavement beside the truck, and kept going live. This went on until we could find a hotel, as people slowly came back onto the streets of New York. A dead quiet, sad, shell-shocked city, where numb relatives wandered like zombies, appealing to anyone they could find to help locate their beloved who were in the towers that morning.

New York City, an invincible metropolis of 8 million, had become a deathly village of muffled cries. Its residents brought to their knees in silent candlelight vigils. As I said, the world turned that day. And I still reflect with great disbelief, as overwhelmed then, as now.

Tara Brown, Reporter at 60 Minutes
September 11, 2001 remains the day the world changed forever. A day the passing of time has done nothing to make any less gut-wrenching or inconceivable. That the attack was so audacious, so easy, and so deadly seemed to scar our psyche - a scar as wide as the gaping hole that, for so long, marred the Manhattan skyline.

At the time, I was in Wales on assignment for 60 Minutes. That story was immediately abandoned in a mad scramble to get to New York but, with every plane now seen as a potential flying bomb, the airspace over North America was closed. Eventually, we, along with a contingent of UK media, chartered an old Boeing 747 from London to Montreal, Canada. We then rented a bus for the 10-hour road trip and arrived in New York City early Friday morning, just three days after the terrorists had left their deadly mark.

New York was a city in shock, and in grief. Parts of it seemed covered in snow, so thick was the dust of pulverised glass and concrete that had settled on shop awnings and damaged cars, abandoned in the shadow of where the Twin Towers once stood.

The lists of the missing spoke unbearably of the death toll which would take months to tally. But we also encountered stories of survival, and breathtaking near misses.

Damon Johnston, Victorian Editor at The Australian
When the North Tower imploded, I was standing at the intersection of West Broadway and Reid Street, four to five blocks from what would become known as Ground Zero. I had made my way there by taxi from our Upper West Side apartment, which was where I was watching CNN when they cut to the image of the smoke pouring from the tower after the first plane went in. I was filing back to the Melbourne newsroom when the second plane hit the South Tower.

It was a struggle to find a taxi to take me downtown, but I succeeded, and we made it several blocks north before he stopped, and said he wasn't going any further. I got out and walked the rest of the way, or at least as far as I could get until the North Tower fell down too.

From a piece Damon wrote for the Herald Sun in 2016:
I reach West Broadway and head south. Not running, but walking with a sense of urgency, Crossing Lispenard, Walker, White, Franklin and Leonard streets, I’m on the mobile dictating copy back to the Herald Sun newsroom. I reach the intersection of West Broadway and Chambers. I’m standing in the middle of the road. Black smoke is belching from the top and chunks of the skyscraper are breaking off. Below the smoke, an orange rim glows. I slow down, but keep walking towards Warren St. Four more streets - Murray, Park, Barclay and Vesey - and I’ll reach the tower.

But then I stop. The top 15 or so floors shudder, twist and dislocate. A fireball squirts from the glow. I can hear a noise like a growl. Most of the damage appears to be hundreds of metres high. Yet the sound rumbles from deep down. It takes about 10 seconds for 110 storeys to collapse in a grey fountain in front me. I’m five blocks away. The ash starts barrelling towards me. It’s moving real quick, wrapping around buildings, swallowing everything. I turn and run, mobile to my ear, laptop bag thumping my side. I turn around, the storm cloud has closed to within 20 metres. I realise I cannot outrun it. I’m about to be swallowed.

...The brilliant blue sky turns grey, then brown, then black. My throat chokes. My eyes sting in their contact lenses. I taste scorched metal and burned plastic...I spit and gag and splutter before guzzling a bottle of water. I am coated in dust: even the narrow niches between the numbers of my phone are filmed in grime.

Being engulfed in smoke seemed to last forever. It was probably no more than 20 seconds.

Michael Beach, former New York Bureau Chief for News Corp Australia
September 11 was a Tuesday. Two days earlier we had been covering Lleyton Hewitt winning the US Open. My colleague Damon Johnston rang me after the first plane hit the North Tower. I lived downtown on King Street near 6th Avenue, about 15 minutes’ walk from the World Trade Center. The scene on street level was of utter confusion as everyone stared upward at the flames and black smoke trying to understand what was happening. The worst part was when the jumping started. It was a deep guttural reaction amid the shouts of disbelief.

On the 10th anniversary, I asked the owner of the café next to Ground Zero what he remembered. He still couldn’t get those scenes out of his memory bank. "You never forget seeing young people jumping off the building,” he said.

In 2001, there was no text messaging, no phone cameras, no Facebook, no Instagram, no Twitter. So bystanders on the street were yelling up to people in apartments asking for updates as the Pentagon was hit and [President] Bush addressed the nation. When the South Tower went down - 73 minutes after the first strike - the rumble was both unexpected and incredible. It also took out the mobile phone reception, so I had to run back home to file on the landline. I was just sending a story when a firefighter bashed frantically on my door and told me to get out - immediately.  There was a truck parked outside the fortune teller across the road which they suspected was full of explosives and about to blow. Everyone was jumpy.

The rest of the day and night was chaotic. Back downtown, ghost people covered in ash and pulverised concrete, were wandering the streets. The search for survivors began. And everywhere was an invisible fear that smothered Manhattan for days, as the brashest city in the world wondered where the next attack was coming from.


More stories

Telum media database

  • Damon Johnston
  • Michael Beach
  • Michael Usher
  • Tara Brown
  • Telum Media
    11 contacts
    38 media requests

Get in touch to hear more

Request Demo

Regular email alerts featuring the latest news and moves from the media industry across Asia Pacific

Enjoy exclusive daily interviews with senior journalists and PRs as well as in-house editorial and features from the Telum team

Subscribe for alerts