In September 2001, Matthew Zummo was a few months into a new IT job at Lehman Brothers in New York City. On the morning of the 9/11 terrorist attacks he was at his desk on the 40th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center when the first plane hit between floors 93 and 99.
A little more than an hour later he emerged onto the street where he was captured in an iconic photo as the South Tower began to collapse. About 29 minutes later the North Tower collapsed. It would take Zummo around 12 hours to make the 60 miles home to his parents.
Zummo continued working at Lehman Brothers through 2008 when he became a history teacher in the New York City public school system. Four years ago, he and his family moved to Indiana and Zummo now teaches at Shortridge High School in the Indianapolis Public Schools district. Each year he shares his 9/11 experience in the classroom.
WFYI’s Eric Weddle met Zummo outside Shortridge to talk about his reflections on that day. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Eric Weddle: As we approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11, how have you been thinking about it?
Matthew Zummo: Yeah, it does feel a little bit different because it's 20 years. It seems like a grim milestone. And I think with the events that happened in Afghanistan, coming in the forefront of the national attention of why we were there for almost 20 years, it kind of goes back to 9/11. And everything kind of starts from 9/11. Everything that we've as a country done since then in those last 20 years is something you can really reflect on. As a history teacher, that's like, a big thing, right? Twenty years years later, you're like, ‘what has this country gone through since then?’
Eric Weddle: So let's go back to 2001. You were in New York City, working at Lehman Brothers in their IT operations. Are there details in the first part of that morning that you remember?
Matthew Zummo: I always remember just like the heroism of the firemen and the first responders going up the stairwell while we were going down. They had a look in their face with determination. But they were also knowing that this could be their last day on earth but they kept on doing their job, which is unbelievable, you know. I've never seen that before, right? We talk about bravery and being courageous and doing something heroic, and to see it actually with your own eyes — it's something I'll never forget. Absolutely. And those poor guys and those women who helped us get out of that building safely — I'm in debt for the rest of my life, for sure. For sure. I always always think about them first on these days. Absolutely.
Eric Weddle: One of the more iconic photos of that morning was taken by Patrick Witty; he was a Time Magazine photo editor at that time. The photo is a group of stunned New Yorkers on the street, they’re looking up. It was taken at 9:59 a.m. as the South Tower began to collapse. And I have the photo here, I wanted you to just tell me a bit about it.
Matthew Zummo: I am the person on the left right there [back turned, moving away]. I remember exactly what it is. I just got out of the World Trade Center complex, which was actually multiple buildings and some of it was downtown. And to leave the buildings, you actually had to go underneath these subway tunnels and roads and everything like that, and you got popped up right here. This is by Trinity Church by Park Row. I remember coming out right away and seeing the two buildings on fire. When I was in the building, I never thought the second building was hit. I only knew that my building was hit. When I saw the second building on fire, I knew that somebody was trying to kill me. And I wanted to get out as quickly as possible.
I can understand why everybody else is looking up, even with an expression of disbelief. But being in that building for an hour — and not only seeing but smelling and touching and tasting almost all of that stuff that was going on — I just wanted to get out as soon as possible. And I wanted to get home, I wanted to get home to my mom. And you know, it was hard. It was hard. It was a hard decision. I didn't get home ‘till like around 10 o'clock at night that day. It was a long day. It was a long day. And I met my father at the Nassau/Queens border and we got home together.
My father passes away about five or six months later, and I remember having a conversation, he was a Vietnam vet, about why bad things happen. We had a good conversation about that, because he remembered the stuff that went on in Vietnam. And I just went through this kind of war-like experience. It was something that fathers and sons throughout the course of history shared and we were just being part of those cogs in the wheel of history, just doing it again.
Eric Weddle: What's been the aftermath for you in the months or years since 9/11 — was it a change in job? Change in life goals?
Matthew Zummo: Well, I wanted to become a teacher. I was studying to become a teacher down there. And I didn't want to work for Lehman Brothers. And I was going to night school to become a teacher at St. John's University. (The attacks on Sept. 11, 2001) was always this thing in which you were a part of history, and now you're teaching it. I thought it was just an amazing point.
Eric Weddle: Going into this weekend on Saturday, the 20th anniversary, what is your plan with your family?
Matthew Zummo: I was never a big anniversary guy when I lived in New York. And now that I live in Indianapolis, I think it's just always time to just be close to your family and loved ones. I do call my mom everyday. On 9/11 I try to call her and talk about her, and I'm grateful that I still have that opportunity. And I'm grateful because those first responders gave me that chance. It gave all those survivors a chance to talk to their moms, you know, and talk to their loved ones.
I just cannot imagine that pain that these family members have to deal with year in and year out thinking about their loved ones being in those buildings. I just have to tell them that those were the bravest men and women I've ever seen in my life. I never saw anything more heroic in their actions. I'm forever grateful for what they did that day for me, for sure. And I think I can speak for a lot of the survivors: Yeah, you know, they saved us for sure. Absolutely.