Ten years ago Sunday in the burning World Trade Center, the men who had come to trust and admire their leader were calling out to him:
“‘Come on, Cap!’” They shouted to Capt. William F. Burke, Jr., FDNY, of Plainview. “‘Let’s go!’”
In the surreal half-light of a North Tower stairwell, the crew of Engine 21 had just heard the world around them thunder and shake apart. They didn’t know it, but the South Tower had just collapsed beside them. What they were sure of was that the time to leave was now.
“‘We got to get out, Cap,’” They kept calling.
This was Billy Burke’s answer: “‘You guys go ahead,’” Burke told them. “‘We’ll meet at the rig.’”
They turned and he was gone. His men watched him disappear through a doorway to search yet another floor, making a final sweep for those in need, the helpless whom might have been trapped; a citizen in need of a fireman. That’s what Capt. Burke was all about.
“He was definitely a people person,” said firefighter Dan O’Connor, among the last New York City firefighters still on the job at Engine 21 who worked with Burke that day. The entire current company, past members, family and friends will attend a solemn ceremony at the firehouse Sunday in Burke’s memory.
In an interview Thursday at Engine 21 on East 40th St. in Manhattan, also known as “Capt. William F. Burke, Jr. FDNY Street,” O’Connor told the remarkable story of the last time the crew saw their captain alive.
“That was him,” said O’Connor, a 22-year FDNY veteran. “He would help people any way he could. He was fully involved that way.”
O’Connor had just gotten off duty after a difficult night shift and was about to head home. When the first plane hit, the company, like many civilians, thought the incident involved a small plane.
But within minutes, a third, a fourth and a fifth alarm sounded. O’Connor heard Burke telling the day shift guys they were going. O’Connor was in the firehouse kitchen watching TV and saw the second plane hit. He ran to the apparatus floor just as the engine pulled away.
“I always felt a little guilty about that,” he said. “Another minute and I would have been on the rig with them.”
O’Connor commandeered a painter’s private truck and raced downtown. He and other firefighters were shuttled to Ground Zero. O’Connor got there just as the North Tower collapsed.
Amid the chaos that followed, he found the rest of Engine 21’s crew, who had made it to the ground floor and began running as the North Tower disintegrated around them. All of Burke’s men had made it out alive.
But Capt. Burke was missing.
His body was found that October, one of the 343 New York City firefighters who died on Sept. 11, by far the worst day in the department’s storied history. He was eulogized at St. Patrick’s Cathedral where, O'Connor said, many fellow firefighters learned much more about their leader.
He was the namesake of Deputy Chief William Burke, who commanded a division in the fire-ravaged South Bronx during the 1960’s and early ‘70s. One of six children, he was an All-Nassau swimmer at Plainview-Old Bethpage High School and a highly respected lifeguard at Jones Beach for more than two decades.
Burke had more than 20 years in the FDNY when he earned the captain’s rank in the spring of 2001.
O’Connor said the crew liked Burke right away and felt comfortable with him. Their captain was good at all aspects of the job, he said, from the fire fighting itself to managing the firehouse and the commanding officers above him.
“He was one of the best captains I ever had,” O’Connor said.
Billy worked hard and played hard.
When he was assigned as its permanent captain, Burke threw a raucous party for his crew at a bar in the Meat Packing district. From the smile on O’Connor’s face, the event is still legendary at Engine 21.
Charming and gregarious, Burke lived in Stuyvesant Town in lower Manhattan and rode a bicycle to work most days. By all accounts he enjoyed a host of female admirers. Many would drop by the firehouse to say “hi” to one of New York’s most eligible bachelors, O’Connor said.
He was also a Civil War buff who liked Elvis Presley and crooners like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.
The façade of Engine 21 bears a plaque in Burke’s memory just to the right of the big red doors he went through on his final run 10 years ago. There, as in firehouses around the city Sunday, they will remember their fallen comrade.
They will stand at attention at four moments seared into our memories: 8:46; 9:03; 9:59; 10:28. The exact minutes the planes crashed and the towers collapsed 10 years ago. For each, a moment of silence; then, the new captain will say a prayer. Afterward, they will tell stories and remember Billy Burke’s supreme sacrifice.
And his last words to them were prophetic: They will meet at the rig.
To read more about Burke's family's efforts to keep his memory alive, click
(To read more about that day and how it has changed the lives of so many, see the Huffington Post's gallery: Touched By Terror: Patch Remember 9/11 in 911 Snapshots.)