On 9/11, How Teacher Ronit “Roe” Wrubel Kept Her Third Graders at NYC’s PS 89 Safe

It was September 11, 2001, and New York City teacher Ronit “Roe” Wrubel was still figuring out the quickest route to P.S. 89, the redbrick elementary school where she’d just started teaching third grade. A brilliant blue sky, washed clean by the previous night’s thunderstorm, beckoned through the windows of her express bus from Brooklyn. Roe made a decision: She’d hop off in front of the World Trade Center and walk the few blocks to school.

Roe had been 8 years old when the 110-story Twin Towers opened in 1973; her father, a carpenter, had done some construction work inside the buildings. To her, the skyscrapers were perfect emblems of the city in which she’d lived her entire life. That bright Tuesday morning in 2001, Roe threaded through the plaza between them, past the enormous bronze sculpture called The Sphere and through the North Tower lobby, a place she loved for its panoply of international flags. It was early, not yet 7:30. She’d still have time to eat breakfast and double-check her lesson plans before the school bell rang.

Though Roe was new at P.S. 89, this was her 14th year as a teacher, and she loved it. Loved the kids. Loved seeing their thrill when they grasped a tricky math problem or discovered the joy of writing. She had a tradition of sitting her students down on the first day of school and asking them, “What’s my biggest job as your teacher?” Kids would call out guesses: “To teach us reading?” “To teach us math?” Then Roe would tell them, “My biggest job is to keep you safe.” More than anything else, she wanted her kids to feel secure inside her classroom, with its shelves of bright plastic math counters and chapter books.

At 8:30 a.m., Roe collected her 23 third graders from the fenced schoolyard and led them upstairs to the third floor. Daily routines were still a work in progress. Kids hung backpacks in the coat closet and plopped on the rug for the morning meeting. Within 15 minutes or so they were reading at little tables.

That was when a strange noise rumbled through the classroom — it sounded like heavy furniture being moved somewhere overhead. Roe didn’t think much of it until the father of one of her students appeared at the door. Red-faced, he blurted, “I’m taking my daughter.”

Was there a death in the family? Roe wondered. “OK, let me get her backpack,” she said. “I’ll get her homework and get her set up.”

“No, no,” the father said. “I’m taking he right now. Don’t you know?”

“Know what?” Roe replied.

“A missile just blew up the World Trade Center.”

She looked through the classroom windows. High on the North Tower of the World Trade Center, smoke billowed and flames burst from a jagged hole. Roe quickly closed the blinds. She didn’t want her 8-year-old students to see this.

Ambulances wailed on West Street below. Roe gathered her kids back onto the rug. Inside, she was terrified. To her wide-eyed third graders, she deliberately projected calm. “There was an accident outside,” she explained. “You’re going to hear a lot of noise. I don’t really know what’s happening, but you just stay with me. We’re safe. We’re inside. We’re OK. Everything’s fine.”

On the day our lives changed forever, Roe Wrubel walked her third graders more than a mile north from their school, P.S. 89, away from the 9/11 attacks. None of them knew what had happened or what would happen next. Her only thought was to get them to safety.

Dina Ruzha

At 9:03, they heard that same furniture-shifting sound again: United Flight 175 had just torn through the South Tower of the World Trade Center. Stepping into the coat closet, Roe tried to reach her mom in Brooklyn, then her friends who worked at the World Trade Center. No response. Cell phone networks were overloaded.

Roe was told to take her students down the hall to the gym, which had no windows. She gathered them in a corner and started reading aloud, but the room hummed with anxiety. Parents rushing in to pick up their children shared alarming bits of information, only some of which were true. (“I heard the Pentagon was hit,” someone said. “I heard Detroit was blown off the map,” another claimed.)

On the first day of school, I always told the kids my biggest job was to keep them safe.

Close to 10 a.m., the lights in the gym flickered. The walls shuddered. They heard a sound like an explosion. That was the South Tower collapsing. By then most of Roe’s 23 students had been picked up by their caregivers. Only three remained when word came from principal Ronnie Najjar that P.S. 89 would be evacuating 1.3 miles north to P.S. 3 — by chance, the school where Roe had previously taught. One kindhearted mother, who had her own child with her, had opted to stay and help, and the two women each grabbed a couple of small hands and hustled the third graders downstairs onto West Street.

The city looked like a movie set to Roe, with fire trucks and ambulances barreling south and throngs of people, some shoeless or chalky with dust, running north. The P.S. 89 group headed that way too. About 10 minutes into their walk, at 10:28 a.m., Roe heard a noise like the roar of a jet engine. She turned and saw the North Tower pancaking onto itself, spewing debris and smoke. Unfathomable. “Don’t look,” Roe urged her students, a few of whom were crying or asking for their parents. She was desperate to keep the kids facing forward, to preserve one tiny shred of their innocence. By repeating “We’re safe. We’re OK. We’re together” like a mantra, Roe managed to keep everyone close and focused on her until they reached the safety of P.S. 3.

At that point, no one knew that 2,606 people had died at the World Trade Center. They didn’t know that, miraculously, none of the dead were immediate family members of anyone in the P.S. 89 school community. (A couple of parents had been injured.) Nor did they know that they wouldn’t return to P.S. 89 for five and a half months. The building would be used as a command center, where FEMA workers and other emergency personnel would sift through the rubble of Ground Zero.

On the morning of September 11, Roe knew only that she needed to care for her kids and reunite them with their grownups. By late afternoon, after many frantic phone calls, she had done so, and she finally headed through the shell-shocked city to board one of the working subway lines to Brooklyn. Having grown up hearing her parents’ stories of surviving the Holocaust, she was struck now by a sense of fear and displacement. Curled up in front of the TV watching the news at her mom’s apartment that night, she asked, “How did you live like this for years and years?” Her mother replied, “I didn’t know any different.”

Amazingly, many New York City schools reopened by the end of the week. P.S. 89 reopened the following week, albeit in the P.S. 3 building. All Roe’s supplies were stuck at the old building — of that time, she says, “I learned that I can teach with nothing” — but soon gifts from around the world poured in: letters, schoolbooks, pencils, stuffed animals. Roe found notebooks her kids could use to process their harrowing experiences. Some drew endless pictures of the World Trade Center, of planes.

As the kids grappled with their 9/11 trauma, so did the teachers. “I didn’t go above 14th Street on my own time for a full year,” Roe says, “because I needed to be within walking distance of the Brooklyn Bridge. I couldn’t hear furniture move for years without flinching.” The school helped her find a therapist and a few group counseling sessions. But mostly, Roe found comfort in talking and strategizing with other teachers and staffers in the hallways and the lunchroom. The fact that she’d been brand-new to P.S. 89 in September 2001 was erased by the kinship formed through the sharing of a hard experience.

illustrated a plaque at ps 89 commemorates 911

At P.S. 89, a plaque commemorates the day.

Dina Ruzha

When P.S. 89 finally reopened at the end of February 2002, it was a turning point. Is it really safe? Roe wondered. Was it cleaned as promised? How will the kids feel about being back? Her original group of 23 third graders had dwindled by then to 11; the rest had transferred or moved out of battered Battery Park City. In the end, Roe says, “we jumped in and rolled up our sleeves and got back to the work of teaching and learning.”

Now, 20 years after 9/11, Roe still teaches at P.S. 89, where a plaque on the brick wall of the schoolyard honors “the heroic and compassionate principals, teachers and staff…who brought [students] to safety, of both body and spirit” that day. Teaching is Roe’s life, and unsurprisingly, she doesn’t think of herself as a hero for what she did on September 11. “I was doing my job, one I take very seriously,” she says.

She’s done it through the floods of Hurricane Sandy, through a shooting outside the school and now through a pandemic. Lately she’s been asking her students to identify one source of joy in their lives every day. She’s trying to teach them to flip the script of adversity — to know that there’s happiness to be found in challenging times, that learning lights the darkest days … and that no matter what happens, their teacher will always work to keep them safe.

This story originally appeared in the September 2021 issue of Good Housekeeping. Subscribe here.

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