Captain William F. Burke, Jr. was more than just a fireman. He was a brother, an uncle, a friend. His sister, Dr. Elizabeth Berry of Syracuse, said that “when you became Billy’s friend, it was a serious commitment for him, and you were friends for life.”
Captain Burke spent his life in service to others, not only as a member of the New York City Fire Department, but as a lifeguard at Robert Moses State Park on Long Island and as a friendly face to all who crossed his path in his “small town called Manhattan,” Berry said. “He was an extraordinary person, but he would say he was just doing his job.”
Captain Burke was doing the job he loved on Sept. 11, 2001. That morning he and his team, Engine Company 21, rushed to help evacuate the burning World Trade Center. Captain Burke ordered his team out of the tower while he stayed to help two civilians. “I’m right behind you,” he told his men. They all exited safely, but Captain Burke didn’t make it out before the tower collapsed.
That night, with Captain Burke’s whereabouts yet unknown and Dr. Berry’s husband Paul out of town and unable to get back to Syracuse, their son Michael, 14 at the time, was struggling.
“It was really hard [for Michael],” Dr. Berry said. “I asked him, ‘If Dad can’t be here, who can help you?’ And he said, ‘Can you call Father Fred?’”
Father Fred Mannara, pastor of Most Holy Rosary Church, came right over. And immediately, the communities of Most Holy Rosary and Christian Brothers Academy, where Dr. Berry’s children went to school, came together in support of the family.
“They are part of our neighborhood,” said Father Mannara. “Our parishoners rallied to support [the Berry family] however they could.”
“Rosary and CBA wrapped their arms around my kids and carried them through it,” Dr. Berry remembered. People from the school stayed with Dr. Berry’s children in the days following the attack, while she and her husband went to New York. Some even went to New York for Captain Burke’s memorial service that October.
But Father Mannara also vividly recalls how strong Dr. Berry was that night—and is now— and how she understood that her brother made the ultimate sacrifice because, for him, there was no option but to turn around and help those who needed him.
“That was Billy,” Dr. Berry said. “Taking care of people was his nature.”