INDIAN RIVER COUNTY - Vero Beach resident Paul Seldes remembers everything about that fateful Sept. 11 twenty years ago. He was at the World Trade Center when the planes hit, and the experience has shaped his life and career ever since.
“I was working for a consulting company and we contracted various services to government agencies,” Mr. Seldes told Hometown News. “We were in the process of starting a contract with the NYPD. We were on our way to One Police Plaza that morning, and I had just picked up two of my team members. We were right underneath, in front of the north tower on the highway.”
“The fellow in the back seat of my car, he looked up, and I heard him say “what the f*** is that? And we looked up and we saw the plane level off and plow into that tower.”
His first thought was to get his friends to safety, but he soon returned and spent the next nine months of his life working at what became known as Ground Zero.
“Initially, we were focused on getting out of there and surviving. We were close enough to the plane’s impact that the force of the plane hitting the building literally lifted my car off the ground, and we had debris falling down around the vehicle. The fellow next to me, a former decorated military officer, an armored cavalry commander, was yelling out directions, I was steering and hitting the gas to get around the debris.”
“My first order of business was to get my team members to safety. I got them out of lower Manhattan, and then I went back to assist where and how I could. So I showed up at the command post, because we had been contracted with the city of New York, I was known to certain high level people in the NYPD, and my company was known to them. So initially I was at Ground Zero helping to coordinate search and rescue efforts. In the ensuing days, that roll eventually morphed into a liaison and logistics roll by late October.”
Mr. Seldes spent the next nine months working with the federal response at the World Trade Center site until June of 2002.
That experience changed everything about his life, leading to a move from New York to Vero Beach.
“My wife and I were living in New York City, I was working for a large consulting company, and my wife was working for a Wall Street consulting company. That event shut down both of the companies we worked for. Her company laid off most of their staff, as did the company I worked for, so I stayed on at Ground Zero through the remainder of the time they were working there.”
“Then, as federal operations were winding down, emotionally it was tough, we lost a lot of friends in addition to our employment. My parents had been down here in Vero Beach for a number of years, and my wife said ‘we’re moving to Florida.’ We got down here in July 2002.”
His initial hope was that moving to Vero Beach would allow for a less anxiety-producing lifestyle.
“That was one of the reasons we moved to Florida. It was very emotionally tense being in New York, it was very overwhelming staying in New York, so we moved to a quieter, more calm lifestyle. Moving down here was a big part of the healing process.”
“Shortly after getting here, friends reached out to me for various projects, mostly counter-terrorism related. One friend reached out for federal air marshal training, to help redevelop their training program. We also worked on the TSA baggage screening training program. So I kept getting sucked into that kind of life, and we’ve been doing that ever since. Our company ntb group has been in existence since 2003, and we’re still doing homeland security and emergency management stuff.”
Like many who worked in lower Manhattan after the attack, Mr. Seldes experienced health problems, both mental and physical.
“I spent a long time having a number of health issues related to 9/11, as many of my co-workers at Ground Zero did. By late 2002, I developed some severe respiratory issues, and it took a lot of good doctoring, a lot of treatment to get past that. I had many friends who did not, unfortunately. So that also was emotionally draining, constantly hearing about people in the ensuing years who passed away from 9/11-related affects. More people have died since 9/11, from 9/11, than who died on 9/11. To this day I still hear of people I knew down there having issues or passing away. So that remains emotionally draining.”
“Some of the other emotional impacts have dissipated over time, a lot of peer group counseling, a number of groups that were set up for those of us who responded, to talk through things, that has been a tremendous help. I’ve had ongoing issues with PTSD ever since. Mostly in my case it manifested as a sleep disorder. For a long time after 9/11 I was not able to get a full night’s sleep, and I would wake up with anxiety attacks, bad nightmares, getting two or three hours of sleep at a time. I still have some issues there. It’s definitely an ongoing battle, the demons are always out there.”
As happens with people who have fought in wars, Mr. Seldes found himself getting triggered by various sights, sounds, and even smells.
“A low flying plane definitely makes me nervous and hyper aware. For a long time I was having a lot of issues being in large crowds, but that has dissipated over the years a bit. Certain smells trigger me, bring back memories of the smells from Ground Zero, which are kind of hard to describe, and loud noises. My normal startle reflex is a little hyper. Those things were much more intense earlier on, they’ve dissipated somewhat over time, but they’re still there.”
On the positive side, Mr. Seldes was encouraged by the way the country came together. But he worries that we’ve lost that sense of “all for one, one for all,” and feels that people now react politically to challenging situations.
“It was an important, defining moment for our nation, because we came together strongly, and across the political divide, that was a good thing that came out of it for a while. But we have a national crisis now and we’re seeing that become political theater. I don’t see the COVID pandemic as being anything less than a threat to our nation, maybe different in some ways from 9/11, but the same kind of threat to our national security as 9/11. I don’t think we’re doing a very good job of coming together on that.”
“I think the lesson we learned on that day, and what we all knew on that day, and many of the ensuing days, was that we are one nation and we came together in a time of crisis, and there’s nothing that we can’t do. No one cared who was a democrat or a republican on that day. And in most disasters that I’ve worked, both parties have dealt with, republican and democratic mayors and governors, and republican and democratic presidents, it’s always been working with the expertise, and what we needed to accomplish, and that was one of the strengths that we have as a nation, but I think we’ve lost sight of that, unfortunately, we’re politicizing our response to disasters, and it’s something that I’ve never seen, ever.”
If another 9/11 were to happen now, Mr. Seldes worries that we would not be able to come together the way we did back then.
“I’m not sure that we are able to do that right now. I don’t really see it, given what is going on currently in our country. Just look at what is going on regarding the Jan. 6 incident.”
Much of what Mr. Seldes and his company do now involves training police officers and firefighters. Because some of them were not yet born when 9/11 happened, he says it can be challenging to convey to them lessons from that time.
“We’re seeing this young generation of people coming into the public safety sectors, and they don’t have adult memories of 9/11. They’re in their early 20s, so they were very young when that happened, with no personal recollection of it at all. They don’t have the adult memory so perhaps have a skewed view of what happened and how things happened.”
As we talked, it reminded this writer of when I was growing up, how my dad and grandparents used to talk about their experiences with the Holocaust. No matter how real it was to them, and how real it was to history, and to the country, to me it was just old history, it wasn’t something I could connect to, even though I’m Jewish. I couldn’t really connect to it because it all before I was born. So I couldn’t plug in my daily life to what had happened back then.
“Absolutely, that’s a good correlation,” Mr. Seldes said. “My family had been in the U.S. forever, they were some of the original Jewish settlers here, so there was no family history of the Holocaust in Europe, that was something that happened over there, so I knew about it from an academic, historical perspective, until I met actual Holocaust survivors, with the numbers on their arms, I was in middle school or high school, and hearing their stories first hand was very much like that, it gave me someone’s personal perspective as opposed to a history book perspective.”
To this day, Paul Seldes and his Ground Zero co-workers help each other through the bad memories.
“We formed self-help peer groups, we’re still in touch, we still talk to each other, we still reach out when someone is having a particularly bad day, or bad time in life, a bad moment, they’ll reach out to the rest of the group. We have a number of different Facebook groups of 9/11 responders and workers. Not all of us know each other, but we have that Facebook brotherhood where all of us have each other’s back.”
We spoke about the upcoming 9/11 anniversary, and how he feels seeing the video repeated on the news.
“While I’m glad that they still show it, and it’s important that they show it, I do not watch the news that day, for precisely that reason, I don’t need to see that news imagery from that day on that day. I get to replay that in my head every day, so I avoid watching news coverage of 9/11 on Sept. 11 every year. I try to keep myself doing other things. I’m either working or teaching, or engaging in my hobby of scuba diving, which is a good way to get away from the news coverage, to avoid the 9/11 coverage every year, to help keep my sanity.”
Rather than fully healing, which Paul Seldes thinks is impossible, he has focused the past 20 years on adapting.
“I would say events like this, and as an emergency responder on a lot of things over the years, I don’t think you ever truly heal from them, but you learn from them how to adapt. They alter your life, but you learn how to adapt to that alteration.”
And since his Vero Beach company specializes in emergency management and homeland security operations, the reality of what happened is always with Paul Seldes, and he tries to keep himself ready to jump back in to similar situations.
“That’s what the nature of what I do. I’m engaged in various hurricane responses, doing the same sort of thing. When Hurricane Katrina decimated the gulf coast and New Orleans, I was part of the team that went to the Mississippi coast, and I spent several weeks there, working with a medical group providing immediate medical needs, and recovery and response kinds of stuff.”
“One of the 9/11 support groups reached out and asked if I was having any issues because of Hurricane Katrina. Hurricanes are part of the natural order of things, but 9/11 wasn’t part of the natural order of things and it’s hard to understand why things like that happened, so I still jump in and do what I need to do when the occasion arises.”