From Ground Zero: Remembering 9/11


For teachers and administration, we remember exactly where we were when the World Trade Center was attacked on September 11, 2001; some were on their way to work, others were just waking up. This teacher was in her eighth grade home economics class. The principal had made an announcement that “a plane hit one of the Twin Towers.” Whether it was lack of information at the time or a tactic to keep students calm, that announcement always seemed like a gross understatement of the physical, psychological and emotional devastation that occurred on that fateful Tuesday.

Not many people, however, have an actual first-hand account of that day. Luckily, Trailblazer was able to sit down with someone who does: Mr. Paul Zeller, Pascack Valley Regional High School District’s Director of Instructional Technology.

Paul Zeller

At the time, Mr. Zeller worked at a consultant firm, a mere four blocks north of the World Trade Center. His commute from New Jersey included the Path Train, which traveled right under the Twin Towers.

“I happened to catch an earlier train,” Mr. Zeller explained. “And I went to the bathroom [at my office] to wash my hands from the commute, and I heard a loud bang. At first I thought, well the air compressor machine is right outside the door. Then, I heard my phone ringing, and I picked up. It was my boss who lived seven blocks away at the time. And [he asked], ‘Are you okay?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, why?’ and he said, ‘Well the World Trade Center just had an explosion.’”

At the time, Mr. Zeller and his colleagues did not know the true magnitude of the current destruction—and the destruction to come.

“We saw the second plane [hit] from behind. We didn’t see the impact of it; we saw the explosion through the tower.”

Spending time in his company’s fallout shelter below the building, Mr. Zeller realized that the construction of the Towers had actually saved his life and the lives of his coworkers.

“We felt ground rumble two stories below,” he recalls. “Selfishly, we were all thankful that the building collapsed the way it did because if it hadn’t tipped forward, it would’ve taken out our building. [When we got outside, we saw that] grey dust covered everything…it was like something you would see in a third-world country, those warn torn pictures. You couldn’t make heads or tails of anything. You couldn’t see where the sidewalk ended and the street began. It was almost like grey snow.”

Fourteen years later, many may find this recount of Mr. Zeller’s to be hackneyed or old news. We’ve all heard about the destruction, personally lived through the War on Terror, and seen movies like United 93, based on the United Airlines flight that was destined for San Francisco but crashed in Pennsylvania. For someone who actually experienced the carnage, the panic and the mayhem, however, the story is, even 14 years later, very real and very raw.

“I wasn’t really comfortable talking about my experience until a couple years ago. I don’t know if unless someone hears someone’s recount of what happened if they can truly get it. To hear the buildings were attacked, to hear that thousands of people died…you could be reading a line in a textbook. But to talk to someone who was there, who walked through the soot and the dust…it could’ve been the dust of people. You didn’t know what you were walking through. You saw the bodies falling from the buildings, saw the explosions…that’s what makes it real.”

So what did Mr. Zeller walk away from with his experience of 9/11?

“No one truly knows why things happen, and no one knows when things are going to happen, so do the best you can when you can, because you never know when your time is up.”