William “Billy” F. Burke, Jr. was the second oldest of six children of late Agnes and William Sr., the eldest of four boys and the only one to follow his father into the FDNY. His father, Deputy Chief William F. Burke, Sr., was a legend on the job -- always putting his men first. In 1989, just a few years after retiring, William F. Burke, Sr. passed away suddenly, after having served for 37 years on the job.
On September 11, 2001, before the second plane hit the Twin Towers, Billy, now in his twentieth year on the job and Captain of Engine Co. 21 on E. 40 St. in Manhattan, telephoned his family and friends to warn them of the attacks. He climbed into his rig and led his men down to the World Trade Center.
Billy and his men were on the 27th floor of the North Tower when the South Tower collapsed. Billy immediately alerted the Captain of Ladder Co. 6 and the Officer of Ladder Co. 24, his original company, of the collapse. They, along with their men, immediately evacuated along with a number of civilians they were assisting, all surviving.
Captain Burke ordered his men, who were a few floors below, out by radio. His men told Billy that they would wait for him. “Keep going,” Capt. Burke replied. “I’m right behind you with two civilians. Meet at the rig.” Reluctantly they went on, pausing repeatedly as they descended to radio back to their Captain. “Keep going,” he repeated each time. “I’m right behind you.”
All of his men, along with the civilians they helped out of the North Tower survived. Unknown to them the “two civilians” Billy was with were Ed Beyea and Abe Zelmanowitz, co-workers at Empire Blue Cross. Ed was a quadriplegic trapped in his mechanized wheelchair and Abe would not leave without his friend. As they descended, they telephoned their family and friends to let them know they were still alive. Billy called his friend, Jean Traina. “Stay safe,” she begged him. “This is my job,” he told her, “this is who I am.”
Minutes later the North Tower collapsed and Ed Beyea, Abe Zelmanowitz and Capt. William F. Burke, Jr., perished along with the other innocents on September 11, 2001.
Today, the rig of Engine Co. 21, is a permanent exhibit in the National September 11 Memorial Museum in New York City.
Billy would be humbled and grateful to know that his memory could contribute to honoring first responders and assisting our nation’s most catastrophically injured service members.
So to all participants in the T2T Tower Climb Honoring Captain Billy Burke; as you climb stair after stair and your back is hurting and your knees aching, remember Billy’s words to his men on September 11, 2001:
“Keep going, I’m right behind you”
About the Captain William F. Burke Jr. Foundation: The Captain William F. Burke, Jr. Foundation honors the heroism of FDNY Captain Billy Burke Jr. who sacrificed his life on 9/11 to save others, and to support and honor the sacrifices of our military men and women devoted to protect our freedom."