This essay, published on September 8, 2005, is exclusive to Notablog.
[REMEMBERING THE WORLD TRADE CENTER: 2001; 2002; 2003; 2004; 2005; 2006; 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016; 2017; 2018; 2019; 2020]
PATRICK BURKE, EDUCATOR
By Chris Matthew Sciabarra
Towers, from the Staten Island Ferry, May 12, 2001
Photo by Chris Matthew Sciabarra
"We were all traumatized by the events of 9/11." Indeed, even now, four years later, Patrick Burke admits that it is very "difficult to relive the horrors of that day."
But Patrick continues to bear witness to those horrors. I am honored to add his testimony to my annual tribute page, "Remembering the World Trade Center."
From Whitaker to NYC
Born in Whitaker, Pennsylvania (near Homestead) in the western part of the state, Patrick and his two younger sisters were raised by their mother and aunt. His father had abandoned the family when Patrick was nine years old. At the time, Patrick's mother was five months pregnant with his youngest sister.
Patrick attended the Whitaker Elementary School for grades 1 through 8. "The town wasn't progressive enough to have a kindergarten," he recalls. But he went on to Homeville Junior High School for the 9th grade and then to West Mifflin North High School for grades 10 through 12. "Being the first in my family to apply to college---under my mother's insistence, since my aunt thought I should just go to work in the steel mills of Homestead---I applied to only one school, Duquesne University, was accepted, and asked the bus driver to tell me where to get off on the first day of classes. I began as an English major but switched to mathematics after my first term." It was the "exactness" of mathematics that appealed to Patrick.
Patrick eventually earned an MA in Mathematics from the University of Pittsburgh in 1970 and then moved to New York City that fall. During his first five years in the city, he studied mathematics at the Courant Institute at NYU, and acting at the New School, the HB Studios and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. But the appeal of linear algebra eventually triumphed over the study of acting. Still, while Patrick earned his Ph.D. in 1985 in mathematics education at Teachers College at Columbia, he used his acting experience to direct a number of student productions at Julia Richman High School on Manhattan's upper east side, where he taught. By 1988, Patrick had added a professional certificate in school administration from Hunter College to his growing curriculum vitae.
Teaching mathematics in both high school and college settings, he would spend 34 years in the New York City public school system. By September 1998, he was appointed to the principalship of the High School of Economics & Finance (HSEF). The school, located at 100 Trinity Place, is housed in the former New York University Graduate School of Business Administration, famous as the educational home of the great Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, who gave post-World War II Monday evening lectures there for many years.
HSEF was founded in 1993 by Phyllis Frankfort as a collaboration between the NYC Board of Education and Citigroup. The school opened with only a ninth grade, and added a grade each year until its first commencement exercises in June 1997. Patrick spent six years as HSEF Principal, up until his retirement on September 1, 2004.
As Patrick puts it, "I initially went into education because the only professionals with whom I had any regular contact were my own teachers. I always loved going to school and the academic setting. So, the choice of what career to prepare for naturally led me to education."
He had begun his educational career as a student teacher at South Park High School in the Pittsburgh area---yes, that was the real name of the school, he stresses---but "nothing really prepared me," he says, "for what was to come ... in the New York City Schools."
Patrick's initial desire to become an educator was fueled primarily by his "love ... for mathematics, rather than for children. Teaching mathematics was merely the means by which I could work with my first love. However, as the years passed and as I became heavily involved in student activities, I began to see my students from a broader perspective than the one defined by their classroom performance."
On the bright late summer morning of September 11, 2001, HSEF had about 750 students in attendance.
It was a Tuesday not unlike other Tuesdays, the beginning of another typical day for Patrick as principal of the school. He arrived at the school, one block south of the World Trade Center, somewhere between 7:00 and 7:30 a.m. It was only the fifth day of classes for the students. He was in the middle of a morning meeting in his office with his two assistant principals, making sure that all student textbooks had been distributed properly.
The clock had moved slowly toward 8:46 a.m. The staff discussion was suddenly interrupted by a very loud boom. The building shook.
When Patrick glanced out the windows to his west, he saw a shower of glass, steel, and cement. This had to be a bomb explosion in the World Trade Center, he thought instantly. It's not as if such things had never happened before. But 1993 was still a distant memory for many.
Acting immediately, Patrick directed one of the secretaries to announce a shelter drill. Fire drills and shelter drills were fairly routine in city schools. But there was to be nothing "routine" about the drill on this day.
As the alarm rang from his office, Patrick phoned the Superintendent of Manhattan High Schools to report the situation. He then went to each of the floors to assess student reactions to the drill. The school had no windows on its classroom floors, so "most students had no idea what had just happened."
"When I made it back to the tenth (and top) floor where my office was, I entered the general office just as we heard a second BOOM and again felt the building shake. Now, looking north, I saw major pieces of the south tower falling to the ground with people running rapidly from the area. I remember locking eyes with my secretary, Joan, and we both silently communicated that we knew that something very bad was happening. However, we did not even know then exactly what that was. I again called the Superintendent's Office and told them that I thought there was another explosion at the WTC. I was told that airplanes had struck the towers."
Patrick walked down to the street and saw that the Twin Towers were ablaze. His next-door colleague, Ada Rosario Dolch, principal of the High School for Leadership and Public Service at 90 Trinity Place, was witnessing the inferno as well; Ada's sister would perish on this day, along with other employees of Cantor Fitzgerald.
Fearing that the towers could topple, Lieutenant Lam from School Safety told Patrick and Ada to evacuate their students. "Up until that point," Patrick remembered, "evacuating the students did not appear to be a wise move since it was raining steel and glass and cement." But Patrick and Ada decided that the evacuation would proceed south to Battery Park. Ada's students would use Trinity Place; Patrick's students would go via Greenwich Street, one block west of Trinity Place.
"I went on the PA system, and trying to appear as calm as possible, announced that we would be evacuating the building, but that all students and staff would exit via Staircase B on the south side of the building, instead of half exiting via Staircase A on the north side of the building. I also announced that the teachers should lead their students out a floor at a time---announcing the floors in order---and that all students should remain with their teachers throughout the evacuation. Two of the secretaries wanted to remain in the building to continue answering phone calls from frantic parents. I had to order them to leave."
Once the floors were evacuated, Patrick moved swiftly from floor to floor---to be sure that all students and staff had gone. I then met one of the deans and the school health aide in the lobby and we left the building following the students and other staff members who were a few blocks ahead of us."
After walking west on Thames Street, they turned south on Greenwich Street. The three of them walked two or three blocks down Greenwich.
The clock ticked toward 9:59 a.m. Suddenly, "we heard a very loud roar behind us. Turning around, we saw a mountain high avalanche of dust and ash and debris coming toward us as the South Tower collapsed. I was unable to connect cause and effect at that instant and did not realize that the avalanche was the result of the tower's collapse. The three of us were in front of a parking garage and ducked inside with others to escape. In fact, it was the dean, a former member of the military police, who threw both the health aide and me into the garage and then proceeded to face the oncoming avalanche to direct others who were running"---for their lives.
But the dust and the ash and the debris were merciless, hunting down all those who sought shelter in the vicinity. Inside the garage, "morning instantly turned into midnight as everything became pitch black. It was difficult to breathe," Patrick recalls. "I had thoughts of people dying in fires because of smoke inhalation and I thought that there was a very real possibility that my number was up. Being a Roman Catholic at the time---I've been a Unitarian Universalist since shortly after the November  Presidential Election---I began saying my 'Hail Mary's'."
He remembers that the blackness endured for what seemed like an eternity. But it was really only a matter of minutes. As the smoke and the dust started to dissipate, "we emerged from the garage into a street scene that looked as if it had just been covered with grey snow. Having lost contact with the health aide, the dean and I proceeded south, and found most of the students and staff near what was then called the American Park Restaurant (and is now called Battery Park Gardens). I later learned that, although the students had remained with their teachers in an organized manner when the evacuation started, once the South Tower fell and the avalanche began, the students and staff began to run."
Having arrived at Battery Park, teachers put their students on New Jersey-bound boats and the Staten Island Ferry. "Hundreds of our students ended up on Staten Island and spent the night at Curtis High School there. Other students and staff walked up the FDR Drive; some walked over the Brooklyn Bridge. Ada and I maintained a base at the restaurant and were able to reach the Superintendent's Office to report our status. The restaurant was kind enough to provide all with water and cut up table cloths for people to use as mouth covers."
Within minutes of arriving at Battery Park, however, a second cloud of grey ash had engulfed Lower Manhattan. Patrick was still unable to connect cause and effect; he didn't realize that the North Tower had now imploded until a school safety agent told him: "We're at war. Both of the towers collapsed." In utter disbelief, Patrick asked the agent to repeat what she had just said.
As the real began to supplant the surreal, the evacuation of the students from Lower Manhattan took on even greater urgency.
With organized groups of students being led by teachers out of Battery Park, Ada and other staff members escorted some of the remaining students up the FDR Drive, walking across the Brooklyn Bridge to safety, while Patrick escorted those students who lived in upper Manhattan and the Bronx to a tugboat that took them up the East River to East 60th Street. On this day, the tugboats in the waterways of New York City became part of an extraordinary spontaneous evacuation effort. "With the help of the tugboat operators, we used a ladder to disembark the boat. Those students who could walk home from that point did so. I remained with two or three students who lived in the Bronx."
It was only then that Patrick was able to reach his partner, Greg, via cell phone. "He had been more frightened during the day than I was. He was watching everything unfold on TV without being able to reach me." But Greg told him that subway service had been restored on the west side. After treating his students to some pizza, Patrick accompanied them via cross-town bus to Columbus Circle, and put them on the subway. Before going home, he walked to the Superintendent's Office at 65th Street and Amsterdam Avenue to report that the students were safe.
By the evening of September 11th, Patrick had finally made it home.
"I remember getting in bed that night, after taking a prolonged shower to wash the remains of the WTC off of me. As I lay in Greg's arms, I was able to relinquish the public front I had to put on during the day and I just started to shake and to sob. I found it difficult to concentrate the next day when meeting at the Superintendent's Office to plan. I remember speaking to someone in the hallway as fighter jets flew overhead and I lost control of my emotions."
A week or two later, Patrick returned to Ground Zero to recover some basic supplies from the building. This time, Greg was with him. Smoke was still rising from the simmering rubble; Ground Zero was a bombed-out war site. The students of HSEF would not return to 100 Trinity Place until the end of February 2002; delays in the building's clean-up necessitated the students' relocation to Norman Thomas High School on 33rd Street and Park Avenue, in the shadow of what was now the tallest building in NYC: the Empire State Building. Norman Thomas students attended shortened morning classes, while HSEF students attended afternoon classes until their 6:30 p.m. dismissal.
Much-needed psychological therapy was provided through a partnership with St. Vincent's Hospital, supported by FEMA Funds. After 9/11, the school, which had previously employed a single social worker one day a week, now staffed five full-time social workers who led individual and group counseling sessions for students, teachers, administrators, and parents.
Patrick tells the story of recovery: "One major project that was part of the recovery program involved over thirty art therapists working with the students on the anniversaries of 9/11 in subsequent years. This project, 'Banners of Hope' was conceived by Irma Lederer, former Assistant Principal, Pupil Personnel Services, with the staff of St. Vincent's Hospital. It involved all students working with their teachers and the social workers to discuss their hopes for the future and then translating these hopes to the creation of large banners. The banners were then sent to the various corporations and organizations that had come to our aid in the aftermath of the attacks. In addition to assistance from the New York Board of Education, the High School of Economics & Finance received a great deal of financial and in-kind aid from the private sector. Phyllis Frankfort, who, with her staff at Working in Support of Education (W!SE), performed post-9/11 outreach to ascertain that all students had eventually made it home unharmed, also coordinated the outreach efforts to many organizations and benefactors, including Citigroup, which responded within 48 hours after 9/11, Moody's, Madison Square Garden, Pencil, Ernst & Young, Mead Products, GH Lace, American Management Systems, Sharp Electronics, Credit Suisse, MOUSE, McGraw-Hill Companies, Syracuse University, Xerox, Deutsche Bank, Cornwall-Lebanon School District, AOL Time Warner, Starr Foundation, Third Millennium Foundation, Grand Masons' Lodge, Michael Bolton Foundation, New York Times Foundation, and Emil Braun."
By September 2004, Patrick retired from the public school system. He continues to teach courses in both the Department of Mathematics and the School of Education at Hunter College.
Who's a Hero?
In the October 23, 2001 issue of The Advocate, the national gay and lesbian newsmagazine, Patrick was portrayed as one of the "Gay Heroes of the Terrorist Tragedy." At the time, he dismissed the notion that he was any kind of hero. He told the magazine that it was "just part of the love of working with kids. In a time of catastrophe, your foremost objective is their protection."
But there are many different kinds of heroes. Heroism is partially defined by the ability to muster one's rational faculties in the midst of chaos, to lead courageously in the face of danger. Within several days of the terrorist attacks on 9/11, it was clear that Patrick and his colleagues had acted decisively to bring all 750 students from the High School of Economics & Finance to safety. Every student was fully accounted for.
The brutality of 9/11 left nearly 3,000 civilians dead.
Patrick Burke, dedicated educator, is one of those who made sure that not a single student in attendance in a New York City public school was among the casualties.
Patrick Burke is one of the many heroes of that day.
Patrick and his partner Greg Nanamura