The Engine Company 21 of FDNY lost their Captain on September 11th
William F. Burke Jr.
Rendered by the Flame
Calling Capt. William F. Burke Jr. a firefighter is a little like referring to Elvis as an entertainer.
Captain Burke took the job description and set it over the high flame of his personality, rendering something else entirely. "He always made everything better," said his brother Michael,
"and in Manhattan, it's nice to be around somebody like that."
Like his father, who worked in the South Bronx in the 1960's when fires raged around the clock, Captain Burke, known as
Billy, believed in putting his men first. On Sept. 11, he ordered them out of the north tower, his brother said, while he continued searching for people to rescue.
In Stuyvesant Town, the Manhattan residential complex where he had an apartment, Captain Burke, 46, enjoyed a parade of
admirers. Some were romantic interests, penciled into his address book, drawn by his singular charm. "The first words out of his mouth every single time he met a woman were, `Have you lost
weight?' " his brother said. Then there were the neighbors he helped out. He liked to bicycle to his firehouse, Engine Company 21 on East 40th Street, but if he saw someone struggling with
groceries, he'd screech to a halt.
He spent 25 summers working as a lifeguard at Robert Moses State Park, and a friend, Stuart Kaplan, remembered how the
oldest living Jones Beach lifeguard turned up one day. The man was sickly and in a wheelchair, but his dearest wish was to swim in the ocean one last time. Captain Burke put an arm around him and
helped him into the waves. Afterward, they shared a cold beer and then another. Everybody went home happy.
A Firefighter, a Hero 'That's Billy'
Capt. William F. Burke Jr. had just led people to safety out of Tower Two of the World Trade Center. He
told the firefighter with him to leave and then went back into the building to look for more civilians. Seconds later, the tower collapsed, Burke's brother James said Friday.
"That's Billy," close friend Sonja Fagan said of Burke's returning to the building. Those he had rescued "turned around, and he wasn't there," she said.
Burke, 46, had been a firefighter for more than 20 years. He could have retired, but he loved the job. "I was talking to one of his friends who asked him once why he wanted to be a fireman, and he said, 'I want
to be a hero,'" his brother said.
Burke grew up in Plainview and was one of six children. His father, William Burke, was a fire chief, and
he aspired to be the man his father was, Fagan said. "He could have been anything, but he always wanted to be a fireman," recalled another friend, Terri Seier.
A natural leader, he was a mentor to many younger firefighters as an instructor at the fire academy at Randalls Island. After funerals for other firefighters, he was the one who consoled grieving friends and
family. His presence was reassuring, steady, his friends said.
Burke, an all-county swimmer in high school, had also worked more than 20 years as a lifeguard at Field
Three of Robert Moses State Park. "He was a great lifeguard," said David Spence, lifeguard captain. He
paid attention to his job, knew what to do in a split second, willingly went into the face of danger. "I knew the saves were going to be made with people like him there."
When someone was in danger, "he was always the first one to be there," said Richard Zacker, his supervisor at Field Three.
A charming raconteur, "He just made things fun. He was like a bright spark of life in the middle of things," Spence said.
It was at the beach where Burke introduced Sonja Fagan to his longtime friend, fellow firefighter Michael
Fagan. "He knew that we would be right for each other," she said. "A week after we met, he told his brother, 'I introduced Mike to his wife.'"
Seier met Burke nearly five years ago at a restaurant on Valentine's Day. He wrote his phone number on a
napkin, put musical notes on it and said, "Call me." She did, and they have been friends ever since. She still has the napkin.
He loved Elvis Presley, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra and was fascinated by the Civil War. He visited Gettysburg four or five times, Seier said. On their first date, he took her to Grant's Tomb.
A few years ago, Burke became interested in photography. He would take pictures of friends and would transform them into funny comic strips with word bubbles above their faces, Fagan said.
Some he turned into postcards. The day before the attack, he sent a picture of the lifeguard crew to Zacker. On the back, he had written, "I know this is high praise coming from el moron, but this was the
best summer I ever had at RM 3. Sometimes nice guys do finish first. Thanks, Billy."
In addition to his brother James, Burke has two brothers, Christopher and Michael, and two sisters,
Elizabeth and Janet.
Burke is the only one missing from his company, Engine 21 in Manhattan, his brother said.
At the firehouse Friday, Burke's fellow firefighters were under instructions not to give interviews. In the background, somber music could be heard while over the loudspeaker came the words, "We don't lose
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