Sandra Sully Recalls The Night She Talked Australia Through 9/11

"Behind the scenes, there was a quiet, frenetic energy as we scrambled to make sense of it."

Everyone remembers where they were on September 11, 2001. For Australians who were awake at about 11pm, it's likely they were watching Sandra Sully.

The veteran broadcaster was delivering Ten's Late News when word broke that a plane had crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City.

Sully admits she didn't sleep for two days after delivering the tragic news to the country. She didn't cry for a week.

READ MORE: A Look Back At The Most Powerful 9/11 Images

For five hours on the night of September 11, 2001, Sandra Sully talked Australians through the horror and chaos unfolding on the other side of the world.

"There was a profound realisation that we were arguably on the brink of World War III," she told ten daily.

Sully reported the apparent plane crash as the bulletin went to its first commercial break. There was a scramble to get vision, facts, and some kind of sense of what was happening as the commercials played. And then the night began in earnest.

Sandra Sully reporting on the unfolding attack. Photo: Ten.

"Behind the scenes, there was a quiet, frenetic energy as we scrambled to make sense of it, to try to cover something that no news room in its right mind had ever experienced before," she said.

"Our prime minister [John Howard] was in Washington D.C. being scurried away to a bunker by the Secret Service. The world froze. I froze. International wire services froze. You couldn't believe what you were seeing, or process the gravity of it. I felt like a seat belt was choking me into position."

Incredibly, Sully started that night with the fear that journalists will know well: that the whole story could be a hoax.

"It was such a surreal moment, and the vision so surreal," she said.

Live footage of the September 11 terrorist attack broadcast on Ten in 2001. Photo: Ten.

By an unlucky coincidence, the rival networks like Nine and Seven had pre-recorded their evening news bulletins, with journalists scrambling back to the newsroom to cover the story that would define the century.

But for the first long minutes, it was just Sully.

She credits shift manager in the editing suite that night, Darren 'Daz' Kelleher, with being the first on the ball.

It was about a quarter to 11, and most of the team had gone home. Kelleher saw the footage coming in from CNN -- pretty much the only international broadcaster in those days -- and rang the studio to tell them they better chuck on the television, there was a building on fire.

"All we had were pics and no information," he said. "It could have been an accident. When the second plane went in, that's when we knew something was very wrong."

The sports journalists who were due to deliver their broadcasts never got to it. Kelleher called everybody back in, and by 3am, the newsroom was so busy it felt like 3pm.

When Australians woke up the next morning, they couldn't believe what had happened.  They turned to newspapers and television, where the barrage of destructive images cemented the fact that the horror was indeed real.

A Look Back At The Most Powerful 9/11 Images

But on the night of the attacks, nothing was clear as the tragedy unfolded. Footage that aired live was removed from broadcast the following day, as the scenes grew too confronting.

READ MORE: The Haunting Memories Of The Twin Towers

"There were people on the ledge of the buildings before they crumbled, who couldn't get down," Sully said.

"Smoke was billowing out of the window sills behind them, and they crawled out onto the edges and were holding hands in groups of four or five, jumping together.

"Those images and those moments still haunt me because you can never not see them again.

"Fortunately for many people, they never witnessed it live. They should be grateful. It was so horrific."

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CNN's broadcasters were in a state of shock. They couldn't process the enormity of what was happening to their country.

It's partly the reason Australians saw the unforgettable moment when George W. Bush was told by a Secret Service agent that the United States was under attack, before Americans did.

The footage was coming in from the CNN feed live, and for whatever reason, the U.S. network had gone to a commercial break. Australia had it live.

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"It was a galvanising moment," said Sully. "It felt like you were watching it in slow motion, waiting for the penny to drop."

At one point, she remembers broadcaster Tim Webster waving at her. She looked up from her hastily written notes to see the second tower falling.

By complete chance, there were two journalists on the scene: Michelle Stone, Ten's L.A. correspondent who was in New York to cover the US Open, and Deborah Knight, Ten's Canberra correspondent in the press pool following Howard's D.C. visit. Sully credits both with assisting in the rolling coverage.

Even 17 years later, Sully speaks of the enormous challenge of grappling with a story larger than any before it, or since. To remain calm and not scream or get hysterical; to gather information when the wires were frozen and authorities were silent; to even find the adjectives to continue to describe this "all-encompassing, jaw-dropping" story. To use the word "terrorism" when the United States was still using "accident".

She remembers having a blow out with her news director at the time; he wanted her to go home, rest, and prepare for the late news that night. She needed to stay.

"It was a completely insane suggestion," she said. "Every nerve ending in my being was on edge. I had absorbed the whole thing. How could I walk away and go to bed and get some rest?"

She said it's not unusual on any given week, wherever she is, for someone to come up to her and say, 'Sandra, I was with you that night, and I'll never forget it'.

"I always say to people, we share one of the most profound and unique experiences, because they could see the struggle I had in grasping to capture the enormity and to keep it together," she said.

"We lived the drama and the trauma."

Approaching the date each year brings an ache in her gut and a sense of discomfort, she said. Sully and her husband even arranged to get married the day before -- September 10th -- to try and counteract the anxiety of the day itself and give herself "a more profound, more joyous" lead-in.

But ever the professional, Sully has no complaints about the most gruelling, traumatic night of her career.

"I can't complain," she said. "It's just my reality."

Contact the author: abrucesmith@networkten.com.au

Lead photo: Network Ten.