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Jaime Zamora Recalls Chasing Story Of Sept. 11 Attacks

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  • September 10, 2021

Emmy winner Jaime Zamora drove overnight to cover the aftermath

Retired photojournalist Jaime Zamora traveled the world covering some of the biggest news events during an award-winning, 38-year career in TV news.

He spent the final 30 years of his career at Houston’s ABC/KTRK TV Channel 13.

The four-time Emmy winner was one of the first Texas television journalists on the scene at the Pentagon after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

He shared his experience on that assignment with Our Esquina.

By Jaime Zamora

It has been 20 years since the world changed forever.  Sept. 11, 2001, started out as a normal Tuesday morning for ime. 

I was driving into work at Houston’s Channel 13 just before 8 a.m.  local time when I received a call from Douglas Schurtz on our news desk. He said a plane had hit the World Trade Center in New York.

Schurtz wasn’t sure yet if it was an accident, but he wanted to scramble me to the airport just in case. I told him I could be at the airport in 30 minutes. Just as those words came out of my mouth Doug said, “Oh shit! Another plane just hit the second tower!”  

At that point we both knew something really terrible was happening. I called a friend who worked for Continental Airlines who always helped me get quick flights when I had to get somewhere for breaking news on short notice.

The friend searched for flights that would get me close. But as the seconds went by, one flight after another was grounded. He told me I wasn’t flying anywhere that day.

I called the station to give them this news and asked them how I should proceed.

Jaime Zamora hit the road

“Start driving,” I was told.

I ran by my house quickly where my wife Celeste Coronado Zamora had packed a bag for me. I kissed her goodbye. It would be the last time I would see my family for over three weeks.

My kids were already at school, so I didn’t get to see them.  Reporter/Anchor Tom Abrahams had made it to the airport. I scooped him up, and we started our journey.

In the meantime, the Pentagon had been hit, and the fourth plane crashed in Pennsylvania. I remember commenting to Tom that we were about to cover the biggest story of our careers.

I called my mom to check on her and tell her what I was doing. Of course, she was very worried for me.  We drove and listened to the radio reports. It was still all so unreal. 

We were just past Beaumont when the first tower fell. We stopped in New Orleans to gas up and get some food for the road. Everyone was watching TV.  We continued North from New Orleans and drove through the night. 

Tom and I would switch out driving every few hours so we could try to rest, but it was impossible to sleep. The radio was still bringing us updates, and we were wired with adrenaline. 

Nation’s firefighters rushed to scene

As we drove across the country, we passed bus loads of firefighters headed toward the destruction.  After 24 hours and over 1,500 miles, we arrived at the Pentagon at just before 11 a.m.  on Wednesday. 

The home of our military was still burning.  I remember that we had not been there for five minutes when an announcement came from one of the police vehicles. 

“Everybody get down! Incoming!”  All air traffic had been grounded, especially around DC, but there was a small plane approaching the Pentagon.  

After a few moments of panic, it was determined that it was a government plane surveying the scene.  That was how our time in Washington began. The media had taken over the parking lot of a convenience store across the highway from the Pentagon. 

ABC News had a tent set up for live reports, and we immediately went on the air. We were the first news crew from Texas to report from the scene.  We continued to report that entire day and into the evening.  

By the time we checked into our rooms at the Mayflower Hotel we had been working 43 hours straight since that moment I got the call from the desk on Tuesday morning.  

The next day we headed to the Capitol to meet and interview Congressional leaders from Houston and Texas.  We first interviewed Senator Phil Gramm and for the first time heard? “I want to kill Osama bin Laden.”

Next, we met with House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. The Congressman had a huge, ground level suite in the Capitol because of his leadership position. Halfway through the interview, an aide to the Congressman poked his head into the room and said, “The motorcade is ready, sir.” 

Lucky break

DeLay apologized and explained that he had to cut the interview short because he was traveling with the top leaders of our government to see the destruction up close. Tom and I looked at each other and simultaneously said, “Can we tag along?”  

I remember the aide chuckled, as if to say, “Yea. Right.”  But the Congressman said, “I don’t see why not.”  We rushed to pack our gear up and followed DeLay out of the Capitol. Waiting just outside the doors was a line of black Suburbans and what seemed like 100 TV cameras videotaping us as we loaded into the vehicles.

Tom and I looked at each other in disbelief and excitement at our crazy luck. Talk about being at the right place at the right time. The ride was like a scene from a movie.  A huge motorcade of black vehicles zooming through the streets of Washington D.C. 

The caravan pulled right up to the front of the Pentagon, which was now fenced off. It had the appearance of a military camp with soldiers and tents everywhere.  The building, just 100 yards away, was still smoking.  

The Congressman somehow got away from us before we could crawl out of the back of the Suburban. We tried to catch up to him, but we were stopped by an FBI agent and a soldier with a rifle.  

“Who are you and what are you doing here?” screamed the agent. We explained that we were with the Congressman and he told us to sit tight while the soldier stood over us.  A few minutes later, the Congressman returned with the Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert.  

Jaime Zamora, pool photographer

Right there, with the Pentagon burning behind him, the Speaker deputized me as the “Official Congressional pool photographer.” Nobody messed with me after that.  

We were the first crew to get so close to ground zero. My video showed the complete shock in the faces of our leaders as they saw the extent of the damage up close.

The rest was kind of a blur.  We eventually returned to the Capitol with the Congressman and proceeded to find the media room so we could share our video with the world. 

By then, the networks had heard that some local crew from Texas had talked their way into the Pentagon and were bringing their video.  When we walked into the room we got a standing ovation.  That video was seen by hundreds of millions of people that day.  

This was just day two and we would continue to report for three more weeks before coming home.  I will never forget it.

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