It was a Sunday night, nothing special or notable about it. I had finished work for the day, headed home, cooked some vegies for dinner alone (again), before settling in for some Netflix in my little apartment in Beachwood Canyon, which sits just below the Hollywood Sign in Los Angeles.
I think I had been asleep for about 15 minutes when my phone started ringing. It was the Nine Network’s US Bureau Chief Rob Penfold.
“This will be something,” I thought as the iPhone signature ringtone pulled me from the beginnings of sleep.
Rob sounded tired, he was still trying to figure out what was happening, but by the concerned voices I could hear on his television in the background, this was something.
We quickly learned a shooter was spraying bullets into a crowd of country music fans on the famous Las Vegas Strip, in what became the worst mass shooting in United States’ history. It was getting very close to news time in Australia and we did what we do best in the bureau – scramble.
Rob would start heading to Vegas with our head cameraman Rich Moran. I would race to the studio to go live for the nation’s main nightly bulletins across Australia.
I went from PJs and hair in a messy ponytail, to sitting in studio with a quick slap foundation and some dry shampoo sprayed through my less-than-clean hair, in roughly 40 minutes.
We still didn’t know how bad it was on the strip that night, but from the volley of gunfire we could hear on flooding social media platforms, we knew this would be bad, really, really bad.
The mad dash to the studio was followed by a four hour drive to Vegas. I shut my eyes on the back seat for a bit, while my cameraman and dear friend Adam Bovino drove through the night. But there was no sleeping. It was more like closing my eyes and soaking in the calm, similar to what a boxer might do before stepping into the ring.
This would be the first of four days of around the clock reporting, more than a week on the ground, news-gathering by day, live crosses to capital cities across Australia by night; sleep was counted in minutes not hours, as a party city became host to one of America’s darkest days.
Vegas, where 58 people were killed, would become the first of five ghastly massacres I covered while working as 9News’ US Correspondent.
The Sutherland Springs Church Massacre in Texas saw 26 people killed, the Parkland High School shooting claimed the lives of 17 students and staff members in Florida, the newsroom shooting in Annapolis took more innocent lives, so too the Thousand Oaks massacre on college night at the Borderline Bar and Grill, a popular bar on the outskirts of Los Angeles.
The life of a foreign correspondent is unpredictable, exhausting and terribly sad at times. It’s a job not many people get to experience in their careers, but it’s one I have been fortunate enough to do for the last two years.
When I left Los Angeles on QF12 in December, I took with me three suitcases and a new understanding of the world and the people in it, which I hope will make me a far better journalist in the future.
I wasn’t always afraid of flying. In my work as a reporter in 9News’ Sydney newsroom I have been the passenger in the famous Roulettes, pulling 5Gs upside-down over Sydney Harbour and doing loop de loops out over the Northern Beaches.
Flying in the 9News chopper was an almost weekly event, and heading out in a military helicopter for the day would hardly raise an eyebrow.
But something happened. After a what seemed like a string of air disasters in recent years; MH370, MH17 and the German Wings crash, I lost my nerve.
For the last few years, even thinking about getting on a plane would cause my heart rate to speed up. I’ve been known to choose a six-hour car trip over a one hour plane ride.
So why then would I choose a job where flying (a lot) is non-negotiable? The thought would cross my mind every time I was on the grinding commute to LAX. What am I even doing? How many more planes will I have to get on this week?
Take-off was the worst. I would close my eyes, turn up a podcast in my noise-cancelling headphones and try to just breathe. My long-suffering cameramen were well aware of my fears.
And even though I would be laughing at how ridiculous I was being, they were always very supportive and put up with my nails digging into their arms.
One would even reach out his hand for me to hold, which I would gladly take – and hold on very tight. A passenger on a flight from Phoenix to LA even noticed my stressed facial expressions and handed me his puppy to hold for the duration of the flight (it worked).
Facing fears is a well proven method to get over a phobia, and I am pleased to say a few years of forced flying has actually made me into a far better flyer. My final trip home to Sydney was the most relaxed I’ve been in years.
Flying aside, as team of two (cameraman and reporter) covering the story is, more often than not, the easy part. It’s everything that goes around it that provides the challenge.
Beating deadlines (and the opposition), travel, airport security, hotels, making sure you have mobile phone charge and a signal for a live cross, looking presentable on camera when you haven’t slept, eaten properly or even washed your hair in days.
Then there’s finding a bathroom, water and standing for hours in bitterly cold/searing hot temperatures. Utter exhaustion, grief, loneliness can easily take over if you let it.
In the wide, crazy land which is the United States, scrambling to get to these sometimes obscure locations becomes an art form.
My handbag morphed into somewhat of a mobile TV studio- a passport, portable phone charger, headphones, dry shampoo, hand sanitiser, laptop, eye-mask (for sleep) microphone, note pad, vitamin C, hair spray, bobby pins, make up, hair brush and portable Wi-Fi packed and ready to go at a moment’s notice.
As the media, we are the lucky ones. We get to pack up our equipment and go back to our lives. For the people in the stories we cover, that’s not always the case. It’s healthy to remind yourself of this. It’s also a helpful dose of perspective when things take an unexpected turn your own life.
I’m not a mother from Guatemala who has had her child separated from her at the US- Mexico border. I haven’t lost my parents in a California wildfire.
I haven’t seen people rundown by a “incel” member on the streets of Toronto. I haven’t had my maths class interrupted by a former schoolmate with an AR-15.
Being on the frontline to so much tragedy makes you appreciate the life you do have, because the human beings in these stories were also leading normal and probably happy lives, until they weren’t.
When reports of the Parkland School shooting began to emerge, there was no time to go home and pack, so I stepped on the plane with a handbag and the clothes on my back.
Nobody would have noticed and it’s not even important but I wore the same black jeans and jacket for three days, before being dressed by Walmart’s kids section (anyone who knows me, knows height isn’t my strong point, five feet or 155 cm at full stretch) for the next few days.
In the space of a week I went from the middle of Hurricane Irma in Florida, to standing in a ballgown on a red carpet for the Emmy’s in Downtown LA.
I was on the finish line of the New York Marathon when my phone flashed with a news alert, we needed to get to Texas ASAP, a church had just been shot up.
I was sitting in the car having just comforted a 15-year-old Parkland student who’d lost her best friend, when the boss rang from Sydney- “Would you like to go to London for the Royal Wedding?”
The lows are incredibly low, the highs are amazing and addictive.
The bond a journalist has with their cameraman is one not seen in too many other workplaces.
I have never laughed so hard or cried so uncontrollably than with two of 9News’ best camos and best humans, Adam Bovino and Rich Moran.
From driving in the wrong direction for an hour and a half before realising, to delirious conversations in gutters at 2am, bunkering down in a category 5 hurricane, constant airport delays and carrying me through a heavy personal loss, these men were absolute angels. Not only shooting amazing pictures every time, but holding me up when I needed it most.
One of the most surreal moments I still shake my head at was in Phoenix during the aftermath of the deadly Charlottesville riots.
President Donald Trump was holding a rally for his supporters at the convention centre. Outside, supporters and protesters gathered on what was a stinking hot and tension filled day. Civilians were armed and ready for a fight.
On both sides of the political divide, citizens were carrying handguns and high powered rifles. Some were wearing bullet-proof vests, they’d painted their faces and were wearing military-style fatigues.
The police riot squad wasn’t having a repeat of the violence we’d seen in Virginia, so as night fell they took charge. Firing tear gas and pepper spray as the crowd refused to let up.
Police don’t take chances so, we too were hit with stinging eyes and a burning throat as the acrid smoke filled the air.
It was during my first few months in the USA, still fairly green – a baptism of fire you might say. My cameraman and I were separated. When he finally emerged from the smoke, and with bloodshot eyes, his first words were “how do I get in for the marriage equality vote?”
We had to laugh, it was ten minutes to midnight and the cut off in Australia to register as an overseas voter. We hastily filled in the form, before he could shower the remnants of the night off. Just another crazy day in the bureau.
Being back home in Australia – it’s taken some time to readjust.
When I go to the cinema, I no longer scout out the closest exit in case of a mass shooter situation. I no longer immediately think “gun?” when I see someone on the street acting strangely or rummaging around in their bag.
Here, we don’t see the extreme poverty and lack of care for the vulnerable, which is rife across America.
When we get sick, we can get world-class treatment without worrying about the cost.
Healthy food is on every corner, and the coffee… well, need I say more?
Give me an Aussie beach over California any day of the week and definitely Sydney traffic over Los Angeles! I can now count my friends on more than one hand, and thank goodness, Aussies get my jokes!
After way too many blank stares from Americans, I was starting to think maybe I wasn’t that funny.
As a reporter it’s easy to get hooked on the adrenaline of big breaking news, but Australia really is the lucky country.
One of the few times we made the news in the United States last year was when a Kangaroo was spotted hopping across the Harbour Bridge. Try explaining to Americans that, no, this doesn’t happen all the time!
From being teargassed at a Trump rally in Phoenix, to rubbing shoulders with the leading ladies of Hollywood at the Oscars or helping a Santa Rosa local pick through the remains of their burnt out home.
Witnessing the respect the Invictus Games athletes have for Prince Harry and vice versa, seeing Bill Cosby take his last steps of freedom and sitting down with Australian NRL player Jordan Mailata as he chased his dream of making the Philadelphia Eagles playing roster.
My time in the USA was a rare gift I will treasure for the rest of my life.
Would I do it all again? In a heartbeat.
© Nine Digital Pty Ltd 2019