A Community Rallies Around Principal Who Lost Spouse In Terrorist Attacks

Courtesy of the Washington Post:

After Attacks, Community Rallies Around Principal
Support Helps Educator Who Lost Spouse September 11 Begin to Heal
November 15, 2001

It was early morning when the teachers at Hoffman-Boston Elementary School heard what they thought was a plane crashing in their South Arlington neighborhood. They felt the impact. They saw the smoke. They rushed into Principal Pat Hymel's office.

“Call 911!” they shouted. “Call 911!”

Hymel ran out into the hall.

Minutes before, Hymel had heard about the attacks on the World Trade Center. She phoned her husband, Bob, a civilian management analyst at the Pentagon and half-jokingly asked, “How thick are the walls over there?” They laughed a little. She told him she loved him. She hung up the phone.

What happened in the following minutes and hours is a frantic blur for Hymel.

When she learned that what the teachers had heard was a plane crashing into the Pentagon, she did not have time to call her husband back. She kept her fears to herself.

For the next seven hours, she was consumed with one task: ensuring the safety and sanity of her 411 students. All of them were scared. All of them were unsure, like so many others around the nation, of exactly what was happening.

Ann Krug's kindergarten class saw the plane crash outside the classroom's window.

“I actually pointed it out and said: ‘Look at this plane; look at how low it's flying,' ” Krug recalled. “And then we all saw it come down.”

With Hymel leading the way, the staff corralled the children into the basement. They gathered blocks and books. They hauled three television sets down with them so they could keep the students entertained with educational videos.

“Her first priority was the students,” said Krug, who is also a close friend of the Hymels. “That was what needed to be done.”

Students remember their principal being strong and strict, yet still taking time to play with them. Everything seemed okay.

“Everyone was told that a plane had crashed and that everything was going to be all right,” Hymel recalled. “We hugged the children. We read to them. I could not let them know I was scared for my husband's life. Taking care of them came first.”

Soon after the attacks, parents started arriving at the school to pick up their children. And Hymel, along with Ilsa Reyes, school counselor, had to walk each student up the stairs from the basement to the school's office.

This went on for hours. Up and down. Back and forth.

“At one point, Pat did say, ‘You know, Ilsa, I can't worry about my personal life,' ”  Reyes said. “She really tried not to think about it.”

Hymel did not cry. She did not let anyone, especially the students, think that she was worried. That was, until the last child was picked up at 6:45 p.m.

Finally, she turned to Reyes and Krug and said: “Okay. Help me. Help me see if he is alive.”

Hours later, Hymel learned from the Pentagon that her husband, retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Robert J. Hymel, 55, was one of those killed in the September 11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon.

Coming Together

In the days and weeks after the attack, a community-wide effort to thank Hymel for putting the children before her own worries — and help her deal with her own pain — sprouted. The outpouring of support was so vast that Hymel began to feel like she was at least starting to heal.

The food came first — plates and plates of food donated to the Hymel family from teachers and local families.

“We just started cooking and providing the meals,” Krug said. “We would bring trays and trays of food over.”

Community residents started calling each other, wondering what to do. There were flowers and cards — hundreds of them. Many students asked to make them in classes. Hymel keeps the cards in a straw basket in her office.

“For a little while [students] were drawing these pictures with extreme sadness with no smiling faces and colors that had madness,” said Alicia Kopec, an art teacher at the school. “But then they started to write her cards and the pictures and images switched.”

Mercedes Wilson, 10, drew pictures of flowers and the sun.

“The whole school wants to cheer her up,” said Mercedes as she played in the schoolyard on a recent day. “We want to make her happy.”

Adults also wrote cards; some wrote several. Patti Macie, who coordinates the extended-day programs for Arlington County schools, wrote four.

“To me, Pat was like this little Mighty Mouse,” Macie said, describing the 5-foot-2 dynamo with curly black hair.

“She was just this strong, energetic person.”

The school also planted a garden and placed American flags around it. And there is a blood drive planned for December 5 in Robert Hymel's memory.

Local residents and other schools have donated about $5,000 in a fund set up for the school in Robert Hymel's name. Ninety percent of Hoffman-Boston's students qualify for free and reduced lunch — an indicator of poverty. Schools from across the country have sent mittens, teddy bears and other gifts to the Hoffman-Boston  students.

A Love Story

Hymel was extremely close to her husband. They met in Del Rio, Texas, when he was going through pilot training at Laughlin Air Force Base in 1969.

She did not like him at first. Hymel was interested in taller men, and Robert stood 5 feet 6 inches. He was undeterred, however. “Unrelenting,” Pat Hymel recalled.

She was part Mexican American and Jewish. He was of Cajun descent. The two shared their cultures, cooking for each other and taking trips to his native Louisiana.

The Hymels married 30 years ago and have a grown daughter, Natalie, and a 3-year-old granddaughter, Lauren.

When Natalie was a teenager, she would roll her eyes when her parents would hold hands in public. Even after 30 years, the couple acted like school kids in love.

“It was the type of marriage where he would turn to me sometimes and tell me I looked beautiful,” Pat Hymel recalled. “I would say, ‘Come on,' and he would say, ‘No, I am falling in love with you all over again.' “

The marriage was a “real partnership,” she said. She recalled how he had decided to take the Pentagon job so she would have a chance to pursue her dreams.

“For years and years, I was the military wife, moving 15 times, teaching in school districts everywhere,” she said. “The last few years he said it was my time. It my chance to be a principal and he would make dinner for me when I came home. It was really a fair exchange.”

Robert Hymel made himself known around Hoffman-Boston.

To students, he was the man with the mustache who brought them ice cream and came to their math and science nights. He was not just their principal's husband; he was someone they recognized in the halls.

What do children do when they see an adult in pain? How did they cope with such a thing?

Many of the children reacted simply. First, they asked to attend a special funeral for Robert Hymel. For many of the students, it was their first time at a memorial service.

“I wanted to go,” said Olivia Green, 7. “I wanted to hug her and hug her.”

“I felt I should go,” said Julian Giovanetti, 10. “She's just a nice lady. She's always telling me to do my homework and pushing me to the next grade. I mean, if someone in my family had died, I would want her there.”

In fact, hundreds of people, many of them young students, sat on the grass outside Arlington National Cemetery last month to watch a special public memorial observance for Robert Hymel.

A B-52 bomber flew over the cemetery, a special act requested by his wife because it was the second time that Robert Hymel had been caught up in an extraordinary aircraft incident.

Hymel was a B-52 co-pilot during the Vietnam War. In December 1972, his plane was hit by a missile over Hanoi. When the crew tried to land the plane, it pulled sharply to the left. On a second attempt, the B-52 “fell out of the sky,” Pat Hymel said.

Hymel was pulled from the plane. He was just 20 feet away when it burst into flames. He suffered from collapsed lungs and a crushed arm. Last rites were administered. His wife said his doctors were astonished at his recovery and attributed his survival to his desire to live to meet his daughter, then 2 months old. Three members of the five-man crew perished. Hymel was awarded the Purple Heart.

Pat Hymel, who came in to work for at least a few hours each day in the days after her husband's death, said the kindness the community has shown has made a difference to her.

Her mentor, Larry Grove, a former Arlington principal, came in to help run the school while she took some time off.

Still, Hymel said she yearned to be back and feel the buzz of her school.

“I thank God for my job,” she said, as she stood in the schoolyard, telling a group of boys to stop teasing some girls. “Everyone here really has helped me through.”

With that she went back inside, and a few kids tugged at her leg and a few teachers stopped her in the hall with questions and a few parents waited to talk to her in the office. It was time for her to once again focus on her school.

And for that, she was thankful.

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