The clock to my study abroad experience is winding down as I sit here in a quaint little café amid the busy streets of London. I have been trying to decide the perfect time to put pen to paper on my student reporting experiences while overseas, and with 65-degree weather, two pending papers and a mass of laundry waiting to be cleaned at my flat, now seems like the time.
To start, I need to go back to when I walked through the hallways of Robbinsville High School, or as we affectionately called it, “The Bubble.” We were all deeply affected by 9/11, and countless times had conversations about how that day changed our lives. The threat for another attack was real in Robbinsville. Although I do not think any of us would think that an attack would happen in our small town, I do think we all were leery whenever we traveled to New York or Philadelphia.
I graduated from Robbinsville High School in 2014, and moved on to Syracuse University, where terrorism seemed a world away. Up on the SU hill, I major in broadcast journalism, and have covered stories ranging from local elections to flu season and more.
We have talked about terrorism in classes, and I watched major attacks unfolding on American news stations. Although a real threat existed everywhere, I felt a little more relaxed in my oasis in Upstate New York. That would not be the case abroad, and my family and friends were a bit hesitant to let me go with the security threats posed directly towards Europe. But, even before I went to college, I knew I wanted to study abroad in London, and after much persuasion on my part, I finally got on a plane to Heathrow at JFK Jan. 16.
If you told me on that day if I would be feet away from not one, but two, terrorism incidents during my semester abroad, I would have said that you are completely insane. But I was—and being a journalism student, I wound up reporting on the incidents.
My first experience reporting happened while in Venice, Italy, for Spring Break. It was my second day in the floating city, and like any good tourist, I strolled the hallways of Doge’s Palace and admired the beauty of St. Mark’s Basilica with a small tour group of 20. I had a feeling the day was going to be a weird one right after a baby seagull decided to fly into my face, its wing clobbering me.
As we were wrapping up the tour and leaving the Basilica, people just started shouting. Pure pandemonium broke out in an instant and no one knew why. I ran towards the archway looking out into the square and saw it blanketed in smoke. I could see the faint outlines of bodies sprinting in all different directions, and in that moment, everything to me became silent.
People in the Basilica were pushing and shoving, as I—alongside about five to 10 other people—whipped out my phone to try and record anything and everything that was going on. It was my first instinct as a reporter. If you see something that probably is going to be a big news story later, report on it immediately. And that’s what I did.
By this point, the smoke looked like it was rising out of the Bell Tower where dozens of people were stuck inside as they climbed to the top. I kept thinking over and over, “Did I hear a boom? Why can’t I hear anything right now?”
I don’t remember there being any noise, but as I look back and listen to the videos I took, it was not silent in the slightest. People were screaming, and the chatter behind me in the Basilica was deafening.
Pretty much immediately I thought it was a terrorist attack. Ironically enough, the tour guide was discussing seconds before how the Bell Tower in the Square caught fire in the late 1800s. She came up and stood next to me in awe as to what was unfolding in front of her. All I could was ask if this is something normal that happened in the Tower, and she quickly replied, “No,” with a stone cold look on her face. She, too, thought it was a terrorist attack, but sheepishly joked to the group that it could just be another fire—which of course is horrible, too.
I really just wanted to fling myself in the middle of everything. And to the worry and scolding of my parents and family, I did that right after I handed my little audio box to the lead tour guide since she was very concerned about us stealing them in the madness of what was going on (safety was the second thing on her mind, I’m sure).
As I got to the middle of the square, I tweeted my first video of the smoke in St. Mark’s Square, and went on to take a few more of the aftermath. By my second tweet, probably five minutes or so had passed since I originally saw the plume of smoke covering the thousands of tourists in the square. The smoke had cleared, and the square was jam-packed with people just looking around.
I went around and just started to ask people what they saw and what they heard. Pretty much everyone thought it was some sort of an attack. They, too, were confused what was going on especially as a huge police presence filtered civilians out of the area. Never once did I hear a siren nor did any of the people I talked to did either. I tried asking an officer what had happened through the little Italian I know, but they were not commenting at all.
When I got back to my hotel, I spent hours trying to figure out what had happened and see what news agencies were reporting. About five hours after the incident, news agencies started to contact me for comment and use my videos in their stories. It turned out to be a high-profile jewelry heist where the thieves set off two smoke bombs as a deflection.
A week later, on March 22, I was back in London and celebrating my 21st birthday. It was also the day of the Westminster Attacks, a brutal terrorist act in front of Parliament that took the lives of six people, including the attacker, and injured more than 50.
I actually was in a store somewhat close to Westminster and was checking out in line when my phone began buzzing nonstop with notifications. A friend and I asked the cashier if he thought the subway would be closed and it would be hard to get anywhere. He simply shrugged and laughed, saying that everything would still run as normal. So, we ran out of the store towards the closest Underground station.
A bit confused, we still sprinted to the tube in hopes of getting to school swiftly. Both of us traveled in silence. It was clear that both of us had flashbacks of the countless attacks we’ve seen unfold at a distance. The comfort of an attack being behind a TV was gone.
We got to our lodging at Faraday House without any issues and ran downstairs to join the chatter of dozens of students all trying to figure out what happened. My friends and I all jumped on different coverage and compared details to try and make sure we knew absolutely everything that was going on.
What was incredible was how the study abroad program was on top of ensuring not only that we were all safe and accounted for but also that we had updates continuously throughout the day.
I spent the rest of my day reporting from London to both CitrusTV—the student-run television station at Syracuse—and CNY Central, the Syracuse NBC affiliate.
Both experiences were so surreal for me. I at least did not go abroad thinking that I was going to be reporting overseas on two events like those. Just a month before the Westminster attack, I was standing in the same spot. To think that could have been me or my friends or professors or coworkers still shakes me to the core.
Spending my semester in Europe, I have grown accustomed to the high security in nearly every single place I have traveled. Through my internship in the U.K., I have reported on terrorist attacks happening across Europe every week, but I truly never thought I would be thrown in the middle of a terrorist attack in the place that I have called home for the last six months. I was deeply affected by 9/11, as were many, and since that day 16 years ago, we all have to be on high alert. It’s a sad reality for our world.
As a reporter, my job is to translate these horrors to public. Covering one possible attack and one actual attack during my time abroad, it is unfortunate to even think about the horrible things I have yet to cover in my career. But being able to tell the world what is going on is more than a passion of mine, and I cannot think of another career that I would feel the same way.
I know that the news will always cover the worst in the world, but I also know that it is my job to make sure people know what is going on so that the world can change for the better.
Robbinsville resident Nicole DeMentri is a rising senior at Syracuse University and a freelancer for the Robbinsville Advance.