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My 9/11: 'We were painfully aware we had broadcast live the moment hundreds of people died'

Simon Waldman

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Simon Waldman is the BBC News Channel's Morning Editor. He was just finishing his stint in the gallery on 11 September 2001 and expecting to do the school run as usual at 4pm. The teachers were very understanding when he didn't make it...

It had been a humdrum morning on the still relatively new News 24. We'd been concentrating on Eurotunnel's court attempt to get the Sangatte refugee camp closed, and were gearing up for Prime Minister Blair's 'crucial' address that afternoon to the TUC. Tony's speech never got on.

A rookie picture producer, a week into the job, spotted smoke - a LOT of smoke - coming from one of the World Trade Center towers in New York, courtesy of a locked off shot of the Manhattan skyline from US broadcaster ABC. We put it to air after a brief, if slightly heated, discussion about the merits or otherwise of a fire in a far-away skyscraper. That shot sustained many hours of rolling coverage.

But at that stage we had no idea what we were dealing with. Presenters John Nicolson and Valerie Sanderson, with business presenter John Terrett (it all started during the slot normally allocated to business news), found themselves having to commentate over pictures which defied description. The early wire copy which mentioned a plane prompted a mental image of a private light aircraft losing its bearings - not a passenger airliner being used as a weapon. Minutes later, when the second jet hit the second tower, many of us thought initially that we were looking at a tape replay of the first plane going into the first tower.

By the time reports started coming in of the attack on the Pentagon and the fourth airliner coming down in Pennsylvania, it was clear that the United States was indeed under terrorist attack. Nothing could have prepared any of the team for such an eventuality. News 24 was being simulcast on BBC1 (still something of a rarity then), flights were being grounded around the world and phone lines to both Washington and New York were down. Could London be the next target? There were more than a few nervous glances out of the windows of Television Centre in London, but a mixture of instinct and adrenalin kicked in. Personal emotions took a back seat as the team of journalists in the newsroom tried to make sense of rapidly developing events.

When the first tower collapsed we were painfully aware we had broadcast live the moment hundreds of people died. And before either tower fell the live shot was punctuated with tiny specks falling or jumping from the windows. The debate about 'moment of death' - and the BBC's policy of not showing it in almost all circumstances - filled many hours in the weeks that followed. That afternoon, though, there was never any question of not showing the live coverage from Manhattan.

The impact of that September afternoon, particularly on those caught up in the attacks and the families and friends of the victims, cannot be underestimated. The world changed radically that day. I think the BBC newsroom changed too. We began with what seemed to be a potentially interesting 'picture' story. We went rapidly through a kaleidoscope of reaction and emotion - fascination, incomprehension, disbelief, dawning realisation, numbing horror.

We were dealing with terrorism on a so-far unimaginable scale, and yet the newsroom team simply got on with the job. For many, it was only later - that night, or even days afterwards - that the scale of what had happened began to hit home.

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