BY Mubarak Dahir
September 11 2011 4:00 AM ET
New York City
At a high school one block from the World Trade Center this principal got all 750 of his students to safety.
Second period had just begun at the High School for Economics and Finance, located just one block from the World Trade Center, when principal Patrick Burke heard a loud boom and felt his office shake.
“It’s a bomb,” the 54-year-old thought. Immediately, he pressed the fire alarm button, putting in place a shelter plan that would move everyone into the hallways of the 10-story school building. Then he heard the second rumble, felt a second vibration, and made his way outside. There police told him both towers were on fire and could topple onto the school any moment. Burke knew he had to get his kids out fast.
“I knew everyone’s welfare depended on me giving the impression that everything was going to be OK,” he says. “I just concentrated on that.” In a level voice he announced an evacuation plan over the P.A. system—using exits farthest from the World Trade Center.
After the evacuation, Burke stayed in the building and conducted a room-by-room, floor-by-floor inspection. Only when he was convinced he was the last one did he leave the building.
He hadn’t walked more than two blocks when the south tower crashed down. “That was the most frightening time,” he says. “I thought it was the end.” Unable to outrun the cloud of rubble and smoke, Burke, the school nurse, and a teacher ran into a nearby parking garage for shelter. As they were engulfed by dust and debris, “everything went pitch-black,” Burke says.
“Then, being a Catholic, I got on my knees and started saying Hail Marys,” he says. “I was sure my number was up.”
After a few minutes the blackness turned to gray, and Burke found himself still alive. But he knew he still had 750 young people huddled in Battery Park, so he headed there. At the park a restaurant donated tablecloths, which were ripped into strips and handed to the students to cover their mouths. He then organized teachers to take groups of 20 or so students out of the area. He himself rode with 15 students on a tugboat to northern Manhattan, where he put each of the kids on a bus or train home to safety. Only then did he go home to his worried partner.
Burke dismisses the hero label. “It’s just part of the love of working with kids,” he says. “In a time of catastrophe, your foremost objective is their protection. It’s not something you think about. It’s a reflex.”