Wizard of Oz

CNN's Overnight Sydney Star

Purely by chance, Anna Coren had landed in Sydney just as the chocolate shop siege began. That good fortune meant CNN had the only TV correspondent on the scene.

“We got lucky,” Anna Coren said on Monday evening.

A Hong Kong-based correspondent for CNN International, Coren was on a flight to Sydney, in her native Australia, and looking forward to a well-deserved Christmas holiday, when a self-styled Muslim cleric who called himself Man Haron Monis or "Sheik Haron"--a convicted criminal out on bail--walked into the Lindt Chocolate Café in Sydney’s financial district and took 17 hostages with a gun.

“I was on my way to Australia for vacation, to catch a connecting flight,” Coren recalled, “and I landed in Sydney, checked my phone, and there were about 60 urgent messages saying ‘Get to Martin Place!’ So I went straight to where the story was, met the crew, and, yeah, it was game on.”

Thus, two hours after the siege began, and for the next 20, the 39-year-old Coren became the sole correspondent for an American outlet on the scene of what became a drama of shocking carnage—shocking, at least for Australia, where such things seldom occur. Only hours after the Sydney siege ended, the Australian calamity was overtaken by an American tragedy as cable viewers were confronted by the bloody spectacle of an ex-Marine, apparently still at large, who allegedly went on a homicidal rampage in Pennsylvania, killing his ex-wife, her sister, her brother-in-law, her 14-year-old niece, her mother and her grandmother.

Still, the slaughter outside Philadelphia was reportedly the conclusion of a bitter custody battle and unlikely to have global consequences; the violence in Sydney was potentially a lone-wolf Muslim terrorist, inspired to mayhem by the Islamic State. So the story on Coren’s beat had disturbing international implications that the Pennsylvania murders lacked--and put even U.S. authorities on high alert.

“I landed just before midday, and it started about 10 a.m.,” Coren told The Daily Beast, noting that she had just woken up from two hours of precious sleep and was preparing for another “hit,” or live shot, with Wolf Blitzer.

While other U.S. cable and broadcast outlets managed with phone interviews and cut-ins of Australian and British print and television journalists covering the siege, CNN could rely on one of their own. Coren, a striking blond with an authoritative manner and a deep voice, stayed with the story all night and well into the next day.

Law enforcement authorities had moved her and the other media members—who included reporters from Sky News, the BBC and Al Jazeera along with the Aussies—a block away from the popular coffee shop by the time loud bangs were heard. In the wee hours of Tuesday morning Sydney time, after five hostages had escaped and the police conducted more than 12 hours of fruitless negotiations with the sheik, an Australian SWAT team stormed the café with automatic weapons and stun grenades, killing the Iranian-born Monis and discovering that two of his hostages were also dead—Katrina Dawson, a mother of three who worked as a lawyer, and Tori Johnson, the Lindt café manager who apparently tried to disarm the attacker.

“It was a little bit surreal to know that this was unfolding there,” Coren said. “I used to work for Channel 7, which is located directly opposite, and I have frequented the Lindt Café many times. Many people from Channel 7 go there. I was definitely concerned [about former colleagues who may have been trapped inside]. But I was getting messages telling me that everyone from Channel 7 was accounted for. That was a relief.”

Coren said she never felt she was at risk of bodily harm, even as the bullets flew. “Nah, it’s part of the job,” she said.

Of course, she’d already spent two months in Iraq earlier this year under combat conditions and before that was embedded with American special forces in Afghanistan, at one point avoiding getting shot during a close-combat firefight with the Taliban.

“I like being in those environments—I like feeling alive,” Coren said. “You certainly feel alive in those environments, that’s for sure.”

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Six years ago, when Coren left Channel 7 for CNN and Hong Kong, she was a major Australian celebrity—the Diane Sawyer of Oz-- and the newspaper gossips chronicled every twist and turn of her love life. Aside from reaching an international audience, leaving Oz had another benefit—no more silly intrusions into her privacy.

Which does she find scarier—the Aussie tabloids or Taliban marauders?

“Good question,” Coren said. “I much prefer being under fire with U.S. special forces.”