Remembering September 11

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Margaret Espinoza, photo by Bruce Gilbert

Margaret Espinoza, left, with former student Becky Zang this summer. Zang was one of two students carried to safety on Sept. 11, 2001, by Espinoza and colleague Julia Martinez.


Margaret Espinoza remembers the dust and noise, the confusion and fear. Those are not the memories that linger, however, as the nation prepares to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and Espinoza, a paraprofessional working in a school two blocks from where the World Trade Center stood, tries to put the day into context.

That clear, crisp September morning remains unforgettable for Espinoza—and with good reason. Assisted by colleague Julia Martinez, the educators partly wheeled and partly carried two wheelchair-bound students through streets choked with debris. When Espinoza arrived late that afternoon at the home of one of the girls, the mother greeted them, overcome with joy and tears to see a child she feared might have perished.

“‘I have her,” Espinoza remembers telling the mother as the door opened.

This is just one chapter in a catalog of selfless acts and dedication that educators and public employees displayed that day—a day in which teachers, school staff and administrators helped secure safe passage home for 8,000 students in New York City without a single serious injury. And public schools across the nation would demonstrate their worth again in the troubled and fearful weeks to follow—days when the impulse to lash out at anyone deemed an “outsider” was a clear and present danger.

“They did just an awesome job, a wonderful job” in the aftermath, Espinoza says of her colleagues. At school, “everyone was like family, and we came together in kindness and decency.”

Preserving the fabric

“This deserves to be remembered,” says John Robilotti (pictured below), who recently retired after years of service at Staten Island’s Curtis High School and, later, as a staffer for the United Federation of Teachers.

John Robilotti, photo by Bruce Gilbert  

Robilotti was a social studies teacher at Curtis 10 years ago and remembers how faculty and students watched the tragedy unfold from windows at the school. He also recalls how his local provided timely help to teachers in delivering a classroom message of hope, security and tolerance for others in those anxious first days.

He remembers UFT efforts to mobilize materials, support and information to schools that were temporarily displaced in the attacks. And he recalls firsthand the countless small and personal ways that teachers on Staten Island—traditionally a borough that many of the city’s first responders call home—reached out to students who lost loved ones.

“The biggest thing was dealing with the emotional upset of students, both ours and in the community around us,” he says. “It took years to get back to normal and move on, but we never gave up.”

And many of the supports put in place and expanded in those days live on, he stresses, notably the many tolerance and anti-bullying initiatives that grew out of the lessons on tolerance following Sept. 11.

New Washington memorials

Third-grade teacher Leona Johnson, like many of the students and staff at Ketcham Elementary School in Washington, D.C., felt the ground rumble when an American Airlines plane crashed into the Pentagon right across the river. Three D.C. students and three of their teachers were on board, part of a group that had just left for California, where they were to take part in a National Geographic program on marine biology.

friends of Hilda Taylor, photo by Michael Campbell

Friends and colleagues of Hilda Taylor hold a photo showing Washington, D.C., students and teachers just before they boarded the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. Watch video.


Johnson, a building representative for the Washington Teachers’ Union (WTU), could see smoke rising from the Pentagon through her classroom window. Her job was to remain calm and carry on until school was dismissed and it was ascertained that the three D.C. teachers—Sarah Clark, James Debeuneure and Hilda Taylor—had died in the attack, along with their 11-year-old charges.

“I never pictured anything happening like that. I didn’t think anyone could do something like that,” says Johnson, one of many friends and colleagues of Debeuneure, a second-career teacher and sponsor of the safety patrol. “It was just devastating to us. We did all we could to comfort the families,” including siblings of the students who died.

After that day, Ketcham became a memorial in itself, with hundreds of works of art and poetry flowing in from around the country and adorning the hallways. Memorials were erected: a tree and a plaque in a garden at Ketcham, a similar memorial at Backus Middle School (now merged with LaSalle Elementary) where Clark taught, and winding, shady gardens with benches at Leckie Elementary where Taylor taught. The memorials have been a comfort to the families who continue to visit to remember their children who died at the Pentagon: Bernard Brown from Leckie; Asia Cottom from Backus; and Ketcham student Rodney Dickens.

To a person, Taylor’s colleagues still marvel at her passionate approach to teaching, at how, for instance, she found time to organize a geography bee, to bring a weather station to Leckie, and to lead what would have been a science field trip to the Channel Islands.

A call to service

The valor, courage and sacrifice of AFT members crossed constituencies.

AFT member Joel Vetter, a former state flight paramedic at Stony Brook University Medical Center, remembers listening to the radio that morning as he laid bricks for a patio in his backyard on Long Island. That was when he learned that an airliner had crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center. Within minutes, his pager went off, and the member of the New York State Public Employees Federation (PEF) swung into action. It was time to go to work.

The paramedic spent the next 10 to 12 hours flying in and out of lower Manhattan transporting key personnel and supplies.

Dozens of AFT members died in the terrorist attacks, including 34 PEF members whose offices were at the World Trade Center.

Vetter, who has moved on to a new job in the community of New York first responders, “plans on coming to work and doing my job. That is the greatest good I can do—continue my public service.”

The healing arts

In the hours following the Sept. 11 attacks, AFT-represented nurses and healthcare professionals walked through New York City streets, providing care and issuing protective gear to rescue workers. They counseled survivors. And they stood by at hospitals in New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C.

Pat Chapman was a nurse at Cooper Hospital Medical Center in Camden, N.J., and president of the Health Professionals and Allied Employees Local 5118 at the time.

Wanting to do something, Chapman volunteered at a local Red Cross blood donation center. People lined the streets to give blood. It was heartwarming to see, says Chapman. “People were wonderful that day. It renewed your faith in human nature. Everyone just pulled together. ... It’s something we should never forget.”

[Reprinted from American Teacher, September/October 2011/photos by Bruce Gilbert  and Michael Campbell]