A lifeguard and a New York City firefighter, Billy Burke Jr. “did a lot of good things” during his brief lifetime. But, said his brother James, the Southampton Town attorney, “His last hours were his finest hours.”
On September 11, 2001, FDNY Captain William Burke Jr. ordered his men to leave him and evacuate the North Tower as the South Tower collapsed showering debris, ash, and remains across Lower Manhattan. The son of a firefighter, Captain Burke told his men, “Keep going, I’m right behind you.”
But he wasn’t.
Searching for victims, he found two people, Abe Zelmanowitz and Ed Beyea, computer programmers with the Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield company, on the 27th floor with a young firefighter with them. The two were more than just coworkers, they were dear friends. Mr. Zelmanowitz wouldn’t abandon Mr. Beyea, a paraplegic bound in a heavy motorized wheelchair, a chair too heavy to carry down the stairs. The stairs were the only escape route left after the plane struck the North Tower, and it began to shudder and sway.
Captain Burke ordered the younger man to leave.
Stationed with FDNY Engine Company 21, Captain Burke had led his men up through the North Tower to search for civilians who hadn’t yet escaped. When the plane hit, survivors say, Captain Burke knew the building would come down, and ordered his men out, choosing to stay with the stranded civilians. When another group of firefighters led by a lieutenant came upon them, he directed them to leave as well. He kept reassuring his men he’d meet them by the rig, saying he’d meet them outside. The tower fell and when his men looked for him, he was gone. No one else from Engine 21 died that day.
In a final phone call to a friend, he said, “This is what I do.” Colleagues believe he chose to stay, knowing he’d be sacrificing his life. He wouldn’t let Mr. Beyea and Mr. Zelmanowitz die alone.
Son of a FDNY chief, he followed his father’s firefighting philosophy, “Get the civilians out. Then, take care of your men.” Having served FDNY for 20 years, Captain Burke was 46 when he died.
On Friday, September 11, 2020, James Burke traveled to New York City to join those who every year on the anniversary of the terrorist attack, read the names of the nearly 3,000 people who’d perished that day 19 years earlier. He read his brother’s name at an event organized by the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation.
Mr. Siller was a firefighter who had finished his shift that morning, learned of the attack, and made the heroic decision to go back to work and help. Finding the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel closed, he ran, clad in 60 pounds of gear, to the World Trade Center, where he lost his life saving others in the South Tower.
His brother Frank, started the Tower to Tunnels Foundation. Its namesake fundraising event entails a run retracing Mr. Siller’s race to the falling Twin Towers. Since its inception a year after the terrorist attacks, the foundation has raised over $250 million for catastrophically injured veterans, the families of fallen first responders, and Gold Star families. An estimated 30,000 runners participated in last year’s run.
Every year since 9/11, loved ones gathered to read the names at the memorial site. But this year, when officials concerned about social distancing and coronavirus restrictions canceled the event, opting instead to play a recording of the names at the National September 11 Memorial, Frank Siller organized an event nearby under the Tunnel to Towers sponsorship.
Traveling to New York to participate on Thursday night, Mr. Burke saw the twin lights illuminating the sky above the memorial. The next day, he took note of flags waving along the path in front of the firehouse across from Ground Zero. It’s known as “the 10 house,” he explained. “There is a bronze memorial embedded in the wall of the firehouse that runs along the whole side wall of the house.”
The sculpture depicts scenes of the day — 9/11 — and was, said Mr. Burke, “the first of anything built in the area.” The installation was financed by a large law firm that lost a partner, who had been a volunteer firefighter, he explained. The firm Holland & Knight raised money from employees and clients internationally to build the New York City Firefighter Memorial Wall on Fire Station 10. It was dedicated in 2006.
“The managing partner’s wife was a nurse at St. Vincent’s Hospital and they originally put out word to their clients to raise funds for items needed at the hospital,” Mr Burke recounted. “They raised so much that they funded the memorial. It’s really beautiful.”
Joining others on Friday morning in Zucotti Park in the shadow of where the Twin Towers once stood, Mr Burke read his brother’s name. “It was the first time I’d read names since back when they did it the first year. It was important to me to support the Tunnel to Towers organization that had done so much to raise funds to build handicap accessible smart homes for our severely wounded military and to pay off the mortgages for first responders killed in the line of duty.” He described those wounded soldiers as “the most inspirational people you ever want to meet.”
In 2015, the Tunnel to Towers Foundation launched Tower Climb NYC in honor of Captain Burke at One World Observatory at One World Trade Center, an event organized by Mr. Burke and his brother, Michael Burke. One thousand participants climb 104 stories, some 2,000 stairs.
Mr. Burke recalled asking Port Authority officials if the building could be used once it was completed, and receiving an approval, “My brother and I wondered what do we do now?” The brothers sought a collaboration with Frank Siller.
“I met with Frank Siller and told him we had use of the building and Frank said ‘That’s fantastic. If you want to raise money for what we do, you have my whole organization … There’s no better organization, I’d want to be involved with it,’”Mr. Burke said.
“It is a blessing to work with T2T on the stair climb up the rebuilt World Trade Center to raise funds in my brother Billy’s name and to support those who have given so much,” he continued.
“I have always felt that the firefighters and police officers and other responders were the first line in the attacks on 9/11 and that the military took on the fight after that day, so it’s very humbling and an honor to help our soldiers who have sacrificed so much for all of us in response to the attacks in any way I can.”
Speaking of reading the names and working to organize the climb, he said, “Certainly it’s the very least I can do to honor what my brother and others did that day.”
The climb is usually held in June, but due to the COVID-19 crisis, has been postponed to November 22.
Mr. Burke said the climb has become a premier stair climb event in the world. People come from all over the world to participate, and sister events are held throughout the country. “It starts at about 5:30 in the morning” he said, “and when you get to the top of the tower before sunrise, you can watch the sunrise over Manhattan after you finish the climb.”
Describing his brother’s heroism during a September 10 Southampton Town Board meeting, Mr. Burke said, “My brother’s five men, and the lieutenant and his five men, they just got out. He ordered them out. They were reluctant to go, but they just got out. They all would have been killed, but they all survived … At least those 10 people are on earth, and a lot of times I see their families, and their children that were born after 9/11.”
Without his brother’s courageous sacrifice, he observed, “These families wouldn’t exist, these children wouldn’t exist. It’s heartwarming, it’s an honor.”