By Damian Veazey
He calls himself an accidental author, but his success is no accident. Peter Zablocki, named “Mr. Z” by his history students, is a high school history and advanced placement research teacher. He is also vice-president of the Denville Historical Society. During the pandemic his personal and professional interest in researching history turned into a successful book-writing career.
“I started doing research for the historical society about World War II to try to create an exhibit at the local museum,” said Zablocki. “I started meeting with a lot of older residents in the county and came across a murder that happened in town in the 1950’s. Then, COVID happened which gave me more time to write and research which led to me writing my first book which was published last year called Denville 13.” The book sold really well which led to him writing the book Denville in World War II and then writing another book called Terror Over Elizabeth New Jersey which was published last November. “If you had told me a year and a half ago that I was going to be an author, I would probably have chuckled.”
You can probably tell by now that Zablocki loves history and is passionate about doing research. He has a white board in his office and writes down topics that spark his interest. Inspiration for his most recent book, Terror Over Elizabeth New Jersey, came when he was doing research on local history and read about three plane crashes that happened 58 days apart. “There was nothing really written about it, there was a fiction book about it, but no history book on it, so I decided to write about it,” said Zablocki.
Even more interesting is that the crash sites of these three planes were within a mile and a half radius of each other. The crashes occurred during the winter of 1951-1952 making this winter the 70th anniversary of the events. All three planes were large aircraft that fell from the sky around Newark airport onto the town of Elizabeth. All three crashes resulted in the destruction of buildings and numerous passenger deaths. Area residents lived in fear as planes would fly over the town just 300 feet above, shaking their homes and causing TV sets to go off. Zablocki has written fascinating accounts of all three crashes detailing the heroics of the pilots to try and save lives, and people on the ground who assisted with crash survivors and victims. There is also an interesting historical account of Newark airport including ownership changes, how the U.S. military used it, and how Newark became one of the nation’s largest airports.
“It’s like no one ever talks about this, because it’s been so long ago,” said Zablocki. “About a month ago I actually drove to the spots where these 3 planes crashed and there’s nothing, not even a plaque, there’s nothing. There’s an ice cream shop at the site of the 2nd crash and there’s a school soccer field at the spot of the 3rd crash.” Zablocki says it’s interesting how quickly we forget history and he hopes by writing this book it will interest people, but also have people think about their own surroundings and mysteries their towns hold.
There is one more neat aspect of Zablocki’s research and journey into becoming an author. His teaching career and writing career ended up benefitting each other. “I started using my research into these crashes to show my students how to research and how to pull information from newspapers and memoirs,” Zablocki said. “It became a lesson plan for me and then a lesson plan that became a book. It was my students that suggested that I should publish this. So, it was a very fun way to share with my students what I was teaching them how to do, turned into a book.”
By the way, Zablocki is reaching out to community leaders in hopes of putting up some type of permanent markers to recognize the three plane crashes. The author has more books in the oven including one titled, Bullets That Changed America, which is about 13 fired bullets that altered the course of American history. He is also planning yet another book set during the American Revolution called The Morristown Ghost, who scammed wealthy people to give him money. Zablocki’s books are for sale at all major book retailers.