A wag said that calling Billy Burke a fireman was like calling Elvis an entertainer. The Requiem Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral for Captain William E Burke Jr. (1955-2001) at which I was celebrant and preacher was the biggest funeral I ever had. The cardinal presided from the throne, and present were a governor, mayor, and United Nations secretary general. Thousands stood outside on Fifth Avenue, but there was no coffin and no corpse, for Billy was crushed and incinerated in Tower Two of the World Trade Center. I had watched it collapse in a sickening sort of slow motion, and yet I wandered in shock through the smoke trying to see it, for I could not morally register what my retinas had recorded.
Billy of Engine Company 21 was the most decorated fire captain in the city and in the headlines many times, having rescued infants from fires in a life that was the stuff of melodrama. He was one of six children born to a deputy fire chief in the South Bronx, and he wanted to be like his father who fought blaze after blaze in the 1960s when his precinct was like a war zone. He also spent 25 summers as a lifeguard at Robert Moses State Park, where there is a memorial to him. To fulfill the dying wish of the park’s oldest living lifeguard, Billy lifted him out of his wheelchair and carried him into the waves for one last swim. He liked to say, “I’m a [delete] hero.” He died on September 11 helping another man in a wheelchair. Having evacuated all of his men and thousands of civilians, he found Edward Beyea, a quadriplegic, on the 27th floor with a coworker, Abe Zelmanowitz, who would not leave him unattended, and the captain would leave neither of them. He telephoned a friend at 10:15 who begged him to get out, and he told her, “This is my job. This is who I am.” Fourteen minutes later, the tower fell down.
Billy’s friends were legion, and in their ranks were women who found him charming enough to get him named among the city’s more eligible bachelors, a bon vivant with none of the boulevardier’s cynicism and a gallant with none of Lothario’s concomitant enormities. Among his loves was military history; he visited Gettysburg five times and took one young lady on their first date to Grant’s Tomb. The autodidact became a writer, chef, and painter. A piano filled much of the space in his small apartment in Stuyvesant Town. His faith was blunt and cheerful, and priests whose virtue he exaggerated discerned in him a priestliness that might have brought him to ordination—but in a division of labor, he let them save souls from the fires of hell while he saved them from the fires of tenements.
As I stood in the pulpit at the captain’s funeral, the acoustics were tried in a singular way, for I had never before preached against such a wave of weeping, nor had I faced so many thousands of sad eyes; but the object of our suffrages would have been bemused at the many children in the street wearing Captain Billy memorial T-shirts. At the end of the rites, so many public officials said “a few words” that there went out a wise decree banning gratuitous eulogies in the archdiocese.
On an Internet Web site where people condoled, one wrote: “I feel deep pain for his family but yet great joy because he is now with God.” Some sectarian of the dour sort whose vocation is to remind us that this is a vale of tears immediately replied, “He’s not with God, he’s sleeping, awaiting the second coming. Look in Ecclesiastes 9:5 and 1 Thessalonians 4:16.” Billy Burke, who believed in purgatory, would have thought that imprecise. A survivor whom he rescued before going back into the tower recalled, “I turned around, and he wasn’t there.” There are those who said the same thing on the first Easter.