A Tribute to 9/11 First Responder and Urban Assembly Teacher, Sal Puglisi
Gillian Finley, Advancement Manager
19 years ago, a 20 year old EMT from Queens responded to a radio call for help in lower Manhattan on a day that he, and our nation, will never forget. Arriving on scene at the moment of the second plane’s impact, Sal Puglisi began an immediate triage of patients amidst a scene of danger, confusion, and panic. While making rapid transports to the hospital and providing life-saving care to those around him, Sal tragically lost two of his partners and vowed never to return to lower Manhattan. 19 years later, he reports there every day for a different calling — this time at the Urban Assembly School for Emergency Management (UASEM) as Mr. Puglisi, Career and Technical Education (CTE) teacher for Emergency Management and Medicine.
Mr. Puglisi found his way to UASEM after a series of signs, which he attributes to one of his lost partners, Keith, guiding the way for him. Before 9/11, Sal had given college a try and decided it wasn’t for him. Instead, he took an EMT course, immediately fell in love with the work, and served as an EMT for NY Presbyterian. The act of being a first responder in 9/11, however, shifted his priorities and led him to give college another try. With a greater sense of purpose this time, Sal pursued a degree in Social Psychology and Statistics at Queens College. At the behest of his then girlfriend and now wife, he applied for the NYC Teaching Fellows. After the interview was complete, he learned that one of the teachers who interviewed him had taught alongside Keith’s mother. To this day it’s a running joke that Keith got Sal his first teaching job.
Six years later, Sal was itching for a new opportunity. In the pile of his prospects was a packet highlighting schools to open in the DOE that year. As he hurried from one thing to the next, the packet fell onto the floor and opened up directly to the page for Manhattan. There staring back at him was the introduction to UASEM. Given its connection to his passion for emergency medicine, he called up Rudy, the principal at the time, to inquire about a position in Special Education. Eight minutes later Rudy called back. The position was filled already, but would Sal want to give teaching Career and Technical Education (CTE) a try? He was hired in May and spent the summer before the school opened creating the vision for emergency medicine and establishing the crucial partnerships he knew students would need to really understand the field. Of special importance to him was the curriculum. In Sal’s eyes, it had to engage students like he was — the ones who didn’t like school and didn’t see the purpose. He believed that if students could see that they had the power to contribute to the world in an important and meaningful way, that would contribute to the legacy of those he lost. After more than 7 years at SEM, Mr. Puglisi has seen students who began in familiar places of apathy now passionately pursuing service roles in the military, Americorps, FEMA, or the Red Cross.
It is perhaps no surprise that Chancellor Carranza decided to commemorate the 18th anniversary of 9/11 last year in Mr. Puglisi’s classroom. He observed the 9:03 AM moment of silence alongside Sal and his students, and then sat in on preparation for fishbowl discussions about what skills and core values it takes to be a first responder. The engagement and thoughtfulness in the room were the kind present only when students know they are talking about something that really matters, and when being led by someone by whom they are inspired.
As one who never rests, Sal is hungry to continue the growth of the Emergency Medicine pathway at SEM, and on a larger scale the resilience of New York City. A partnership with BMCC now allows students to be certified EMTs upon graduation, which is a role with national vacancies that UASEM students will be poised to fill. Sal and his students have an eye on equity and work toward equipping communities with tools for preparedness and resilience. UASEM students are formulating student-led trainings in Hands-Only CPR and Stop the Bleed in neighborhoods with the slowest emergency response times, and in populations prone to cardiac arrest.
The work at UASEM is a small example of UA’s CTE dreams come to life. Students discover passions, explore them with expert instructors, learn through internships in the field, and build the credentials that become the stepping stones to social and economic mobility. One of the UASEM seniors said it best when Chancellor Carranza asked what was special about his school: “That’s simple! We are prepared for some of the most important jobs, and get real college credits before we graduate!” The answer was a good one, but the enthusiasm was even better. It was abundantly clear that Sal’s dreams of helping others find that spark of purpose are very much alive and well.