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16 Oct 2021 16:48
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  •   Home > News > International

    ABC cameraman recalls covering 9/11 attacks and eight hours in a Washington bunker

    ABC cameraman David McMeekin was travelling with former prime minister John Howard in Washington on September 11, 2001. Twenty years on, he recalls a harrowing experience documenting the aftermath of the terror attacks.


    On the evening of September 10, 2001, it was stormy with lightning, and I remember standing on the steps of the Pentagon with other Australian and US media watching the planes land at Washington National Airport.

    We couldn't possibly have imagined how planes like these would be turned into weapons to create such widespread carnage the very next morning.

    I was a camera operator based at Parliament House in Canberra and part of the official media contingent accompanying then-prime minister John Howard on an official trip to the US which was to include visits to Washington from September 8-11 then New York from September 12-14.

    On the morning of September 11, I was having breakfast in the Willard hotel (we always stayed with the PM) and I heard the news that a light aircraft had crashed into the World Trade Centre in New York.

    We were due to have a press conference with the PM in about 30 minutes, so I immediately ran upstairs to the press room and found journalists and crews, political advisers, and Secret Service agents gathered around a TV.

    John Howard came into the room not long after and stood with us while we watched the second plane fly into the World Trade Centre.

    I started filming the prime minister watching the TV coverage.

    It was then that we realised the enormity of the situation and that these planes were not light aircraft but passenger jets!

    The shock really set in at that point and the solemn faces around the room, including Howard's, painted a thousand words.

    At that moment, one of the Secret Service agents was looking out the window at a huge plume of smoke coming from the Pentagon and suddenly all the agents went into overdrive, talking codes in their earpiece radios and saying we were under attack.

    I remember them saying it was "a bomb, a bomb!".

    At that stage, we were unaware it was another plane crashing into the Pentagon, the very building where I was standing only a few hours before.

    We did a very short press conference with the PM and I remember getting a shot with the burning Pentagon out the window as John Howard was speaking to the media.

    After this, he was whisked away by the Secret Service to the Australian Embassy.

    My first instinct as a news camera operator was then to run onto the street to film what was unfolding.

    It was chaos.

    There were sirens going off everywhere and people running.

    I ran as close as I could get to the Pentagon and filmed the smoke billowing out from a distance away.

    It was frightening and there were panicked people everywhere, all talking on their mobile phones.

    I remember the constant blare of sirens from the fire trucks and other emergency vehicles.

    About an hour later, the travelling media got a call from the Secret Service and were all picked up in black vans and driven to the Australian embassy where we were led to an underground bunker and stayed there for roughly the next eight hours.

    John Howard was also in the same bunker receiving briefings and talking to us.

    His demeanour was very serious and we could tell he was deeply saddened and shocked by what had happened.

    In the room were all the travelling Australian media, the PM's staff and advisers and many people who worked at the embassy.

    I remember it being strangely quiet and calm with everybody transfixed to the rolling CNN coverage on the big screen.

    We weren't sure when we would be able to call our families to let them know we were safe as there was no mobile reception at all in the bunker.

    I was hoping my 8-month-old son at home was peacefully asleep, oblivious to the events his dad was witnessing on the other side of the world.

    About eight hours later, we were eventually allowed to go and call our families to let them know we were OK and return to our hotel.

    The next morning, we were told the airspace had been shut down and we wouldn't be allowed to fly back to Australia.

    John Howard was flown back to Australia via a military aircraft about two days later and he apologised to all of us for not being able to take us as well.

    For the next three weeks, I continued to shoot and edit stories from the Washington bureau with Canberra correspondent Jim Middleton, who was on the trip with me, until we were allowed to return to Australia.

    As each 9/11 anniversary passes, I think of all the families who are living with unspeakable loss from that day and I also remember the other camera operators and journalists I travelled with on that trip to Washington.

    As I reflect on the 20th anniversary, the memory of that day hasn't dimmed and it is part of who I am now, serving as a constant reminder of the gift of a loving family and a blessed life in Australia.

    © 2021 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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