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Rising to the 9/11 challenge

In the devastation following the Sept. 11 attacks on America, it is not hard to find stories of valor and dedication by public school educators in lower Manhattan that explain how 8,000 students were moved out of harm’s way without a single serious injury. Margaret Espinoza is just one of those stories—but one well worth remembering.

A paraprofessional at the High School for Leadership and Public Service, a school just two blocks from the ill-fated World Trade Center, Espinoza’s chief responsibility was working one-on-one with Becky Zang, a wheelchair-bound student at the school. Throughout the noise and confusion, the chaos and panic that unfolded that crisp September morning, Espinoza held true to that duty and returned her charge safely home.

Margaret Espinoza, photo by Bruce Gilbert

Margaret Espinoza, left, with former student Becky Zang in summer 2011.

Espinoza worked with Julia Martinez, another one-on-one paraprofessional at the school, and together they wheeled two students out of the building, heading for Battery Park and evacuation by water taxis to safety. When the streets became choked with glass and debris that prevented the wheelchairs from rolling, Espinoza put Becky on her back and carried her the rest of the way.

“To this day, I honestly don’t know how I did it,” Espinoza says. “I was just running on adrenaline.”

The paras stayed with the girls throughout the ordeal. Late that afternoon, when Espinoza arrived at the Zang home, the mother greeted them at the door, overcome with joy and tears to see a child she feared might have perished.

“I have her,” was all Espinoza could think to say as the door swung open.

Ten years later, Espinoza is still a school paraprofessional, and she remains in close contact with Martinez and the girls they led to safety that day. “Once in a while, we get together on the weekends for church or the movies,” she says. Both of the girls have finished college, and “I am so proud of them.”

What sticks with Espinoza as she reflects on the day is how the entire staff performed spectacularly in the face of unimaginable horror. And the days that followed would see more instances of dedication and true professionalism, when public school educators, staff and specialists would be tasked with grief counseling, fostering a climate of tolerance and acceptance and other challenges leading to recovery.

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