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Park Vista High School principal recalls teaching in New York City on 9/11

'There were no procedures for that at school. There was no preparation,' Dr. Enrique Vela says
Dr. Enrique Vela, principal of Park Vista High School
Posted at 6:00 AM, Sep 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-10 11:34:17-04

PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. — If you ask any teacher what 9/11 was like in their classroom, most will have a story to tell and they relive that tragic day each time they tell it.

That's the case for a Palm Beach County high school principal who said being a kindergarten teacher in Queens on Sept. 11, 2001, forever impacted his career.

MORE: They were some of 9/11's biggest names. Where are they now?

Dr. Enrique Vela has worked in the field of education for 24 years.

These days he walks the halls of Park Vista Community High School as principal and with a different outlook on what it means to keep students safe.

Vela said Sept. 11, 2001, feels like it was just yesterday.

"It's hard to believe that it's been 20 years," Vela said. "There were no procedures for that at school. There was no preparation."

Every anniversary, wherever he is, mentally he's back in Queens teaching a kindergarten class.

Enrique Vela teaches kindergarten children in Queens, New York
Enrique Vela teaches kindergarten children in Queens, New York.

"I vividly remember one of my colleagues knocking on the door calling me over to the door and trying to be as discreet as possible and at the time, she didn't even have all of the accurate information," Vela said. "She just whispered to me, 'The Pentagon and the World Trade Center have just been bombed,' and then walked away, and then I turned around and I had a class full of 5-year-old youngsters looking at me."

Parents then started pulling their children out of school. He said teachers then left the school to pick up their own kids.

On that day, he said he was also left in charge of administration at the school.

"I just learned early on that keeping children safe would be my eternal responsibility," Vela said.

The school stayed open all night as parents who worked in Manhattan couldn't make it back to Queens.

Vela remembers what it was like caring for the children and trying to reach his own family.

"I had a very close cousin who worked in the World Trade Center, and we couldn't get ahold of him, and we were all worried, but fortunately he had left hours before," Vela said.

But loss did hit close to home and his classroom. He had a childhood friend and a student's father who worked at the World Trade Center.

"His mother didn't know how to tell him that his father was killed, and months later she actually asked me, and so I was the one who broke the news to little Kevin in my class of what actually happened to his father months later," Vela said.

In the days after the attack, he learned how much parents trust their child's teachers.

"If that didn't prove it, I don't know what else would," Vela said.

In his first year as principal of Park Vista Community High School, Vela is keeping a 9/11 tradition alive by going to several classrooms and speaking to his students about the importance of remembering Sept. 11, 2001.

"I've kind of made a commitment that every single year, wherever I am, whatever school I am at, I'm going to share the story of 9/11 with children so it's never forgotten," Vela said.

It's a day and a lesson to remember.

Just like on 9/11, his No. 1 priority every day is to keep his students safe.