NORTH TAMPA — It might have been the subject matter, still incomprehensible after a decade.
It might have been the sight of the Tampa class on the video screen, visible in classrooms all over New Jersey.
Either way, you could hear a pin drop in Sean Marcus' journalism class at Freedom High School.
"It's just like when you're a parent," Marcus said. "Sometimes kids listen to somebody else."
That somebody was one of the first reporters on the scene of the World Trade Center disaster, Don Dahler, now of CBS News. His audience, reached through a standard video conference, consisted of students in several high schools. They all watched as the screen showed live shots of Dahler and other classrooms nationwide.
"It was gruesome," Dahler said. "It was not anything I would want anyone to see."
Tuesday's chat was arranged by Global Nomads Group, a nonprofit organization that enables students to speak live with newsmakers around the globe.
The format has taken Freedom on virtual trips to Tunisia, Haiti and Louisiana to discuss political uprisings and natural disasters.
The session with Dahler was closer to home, at least for those students at several northern New Jersey schools.
For the group at Freedom, perhaps the most immediate significance was that their school, along with Liberty Middle next door, opened shortly after the attacks, which is the source of their names.
A moderator, sitting next to Dahler in a studio, allowed students at the schools to take turns asking questions.
For example: How had the experience affected Dahler? What was his strongest interview?
Freedom's Erin Winick asked how the experience prepared Dahler for his later assignment in Afghanistan. Leah Wasserman wondered if Dahler feared for his life.
And, from senior Jonathan Harris: Of all people who are hostile to the United States, what sets al-Qaida apart? "We don't know that much about our enemy," Harris said.
With the ease of someone who lives in front of a camera, Dahler told the story of a medical resident who, while perched on an unstable beam, worked tirelessly to free a man from the wreckage.
He described two Illinois police officers who had driven to the site with their search dog, Miranda — everybody laughed at the name — and cried like babies at what they had seen. "These were two guys who could have ripped me in half," he said.
He spoke about the journalistic integrity he tried to bring to the story — checking his sources, refraining from saying things that might be misleading or inaccurate and hesitating to describe what appeared to be suicidal jumps from the burning towers.
"It's not censorship," he said. "Censorship is something that's imposed on you."
All too soon, the hour was over and the students were back in sunny New Tampa.
While the format did not allow for all of their questions to be answered, several said they appreciated the chance to compare their vantage points with those of the New Jersey teens.
Assistant principal Rosemary Owens said the program is a superb use of technology. "It just gives the school the opportunity to have kids connect in a different way," she said.
"And I do believe in the not-too-distant future, a lot of learning will go on this way."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3356.