Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Today We Remember Captain William Burke, Jr., Engine 21, FDNY

Today We Remember Captain William Burke, Jr., 46-years-old, Engine Co. 21.

On Sept. 11th, 2001, Capt. Burke called his friend Jean on his way to the World Trade Center. She begged him to stay away and he responded, “This is what I do.”

His father, William Burke, was a fire chief, and he aspired to be the man his father was. He dreamed since childhood of fighting fires. He never forgot the lessons his dad offered about what to do inside a burning building: Get the civilians out, and then take care of your men.

On the 27th floor of the North tower, a congregation of firefighters had gathered. They were dispersing to find straggling civilians when they came across Ed Beyea, a wheelchair bound quadriplegic. With Ed was his friend Abe, who refused to leave the building without him. The firemen were having trouble figuring out how to evacuate Ed as he was a 280 lb man and couldn’t easily be lifted down the stairs.

Suddenly, the building shook and swayed. A shock wave rippled through. Capt. Burke ran to the window and said, “The south tower just collapsed.” Mayday was declared and the firemen began to evacuate.
Ed Beyea, bound to his wheelchair, helplessly watched people stream past him with his friend Abe by his side.

“We’ve got to get them out,” Billy said. He then told his own men from Engine 21 to go ahead and get out of the building. They heard Burke on their radio encouraging them as they made their way down saying, “I’ll meet you by the rig” and “I’m right behind you.” About 28 minutes later, the north tower fell.

Capt. Billy Burke is the only one who died from Engine 21 on Sept. 11th.

He and the two civilians almost certainly died together. No one can be sure what was in his mind. Maybe he intended to take a risk by using an elevator to get down, and he saw no reason for other firefighters to share in that risk. Maybe he understood there would be no time to get a big man in a wheelchair downstairs, and Billy Burke wanted to save as many firefighters as he could, while refusing to allow Ed and Ab to die alone.

Gregg Hansson, one of the firemen from Engine 21 whose life was saved by Burke’s orders to evacuate, dropped off his stepson for his freshman year of college this year. It was the kind of day that is emotional for any family, a powerful yet typical rite of passage. He gave the boy a fierce hug and said goodbye, and then he offered thanks to Billy Burke.

Billy had worked for 25 years as a lifeguard on Long Island. One day while on the job, the oldest living former lifeguard came to the beach and his fondest wish was to swim in the ocean one more time. The man was frail, and in a wheelchair. Billy lifted the man into the waves and swam with him. Then they shared a beer.

We Will Never Forget!

Today We Remember FF Leon Smith Jr., Ladder Co. 118, FDNY

Today We Remember FF Leon Smith Jr., 48-years-old, Ladder Co. 118 who was killed on September 11th.

Thirty years ago, when Leon Smith drove his wife to look at the little firehouse at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, she asked him if he was sure this was what he wanted, and he answered yes, he would die for this job.

When Leon Smith Jr. was a youngster, he often disappeared without giving notice to his mother or father. His mother, Irene, said she always knew where to find him: hanging out in the firehouse across the street from the family's home in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

Punishment didn't dissuade him. "I was fighting a losing battle," she said. So much so, her husband pleaded the case for letting him be. "At least you know he's safe there," the late Leon William Smith Sr. would tell his wife.

Years later, Leon’s boyhood dream came true when he joined the FDNY. He was the chauffeur at Ladder 118, the guy who drove the rig to the fires. They called him “Express” because of how fast he would drive through traffic to get to the fires.

Leon referred to his fire truck as "his girlfriend." He washed it every chance he got. And when he was off tour, his crew knew they'd better spruce up Smith's "girlfriend" before he returned or they'd hear it from him.

On September 11th a photographer snapped a picture from Brooklyn of the twin towers. In the foreground is the tiny image of a ladder truck crossing the bridge, dwarfed by two smoking World Trade Center towers looming a mile overhead. It is the Ladder Co. 118 truck and Leon Smith is at the wheel. You can view this picture here:

That's the last glimpse anyone in Brooklyn gets of the six men on that truck.

The last known person to see them alive is Bobby Graff, an elevator mechanic at the Marriott, who later tells rescuers that he remembers them because they're tall and wear the red 118 badge on their helmets.

He says the men of Ladder 118 formed a human chain to keep panicked hotel guests and staff from running out of the collapsing building the wrong way. The fleeing crowd would have been buried alive if not diverted by the firefighters.

Since Sept. 11, Irene Smith, Leon’s mom, shares home cooked meals with the Ladder Co. 118 crew. They give her the strength she needs to go on and she gives them the strength they need to keep going.

All of Ladder 118 are my sons now, my extended family," she said, sobbing. "They are the greatest bunch of guys you'd ever want to meet."

She can still hear her son's boisterous laugh and conjures up images of his kind and caring heart.

Once he came home from school without his coat, and when she asked what had happened to it, he told her he gave it to a kid who didn't have one because he had three.

She used to take him on regular excursions to different places in the city. Occasionally, "I'd hear a knock at the door and I'd open it to see several neighborhood kids standing there, grinning. He would say, 'I invited them, Mamma.' I didn't have any money, but I couldn't refuse them."

"Leon was my hero," his mother said. "When my husband passed, I told Leon I lost my right arm. He said, 'No, you haven't, Mamma, I'll always be here for you.'”

We Will Never Forget!