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!