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9/11 20 Years Later: P.S. 89 Principal Veronica Najjar Remembers Helping Students To Safety In Lower Manhattan

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- Twenty years ago, there were five schools in the area surrounding the World Trade Center.

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, thousands of children were forced to flee to safety.

"Once we realized that the second plane had hit the South Tower, we had to quickly get the kids away from any classrooms that had windows, because we didn't know if there were going to be air attacks," Public School 89 Principal Veronica Najjar told CBS2's Cindy Hsu.

That was the first of many pivotal decisions that day for Principal Najjar at P.S. 89 in Battery Park.

"We got all the kids out of their classrooms. I put every child on the second floor in the auditorium. That doesn't have any windows," she recalled.

She also moved students into the windowless gym and cafeteria.

"I knew that if we had to evacuate, I needed a quick, clean exit, not going from classroom to classroom," she said.

Evacuation was, in fact, the next move. They went north on West Street to the shelter of another school, P.S. 3, more than a mile away.

Complete Coverage9/11 Twenty Years Later

Gabriel Kleiman was in the first grade at the time.

"It was definitely scary, but again, it was -- everything was happening so fast," he told Hsu. "As a kid, seeing your parents scared makes you scared."

Some parents initially struggled to locate their kids in the chaos, not knowing where they were taken. Others arrived at the school within minutes.

"We're making our way up north on the promenade toward North Cove Marina, when the second plane hit," said parent Sharon Fortenbaugh.

Fortenbaugh's son attended P.S. 98. Her husband had managed the marina and took quick action to retrieve him and get their family to safety.

"He took our son, jumped in the boat, raced over to Jersey City. Within minutes, they had shut down New York Harbor," Fortenbaugh remembered.

Today, the attacks of 9/11 are not part of the curriculum at the school, though an important part of the day and people are always recognized.

"It's really about all the people who helped. It's really about the helpers, right? It's about the uniformed police and fire department that sort of helped wherever they could and however they could," said Najjar. "It's really about saying that there are good people in this world who actually help other people."

To thank the staff of PS 89 for what they did that day, a plaque stands just outside the school building.

"I love that plaque," Najjar said. "I think it's a great honor to the staff here. But as I will always say, I didn't feel like a hero. Heroes never know they're being heroes. They're just doing their job."

Since 9/11, there is a uniform plan across all city schools concerning shelter in place, lockdown or evacuation. It's a Department of Education mandate that all emergency plans are explained to parents, so they understand procedures.

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