September 11, through the eyes of
New York City firefighter
Timmy Burke

interview by Christopher Ketcham
Copyright December 2001, Gear Magazine

Put it in New York perspective: the night before was Monday Night Football. I had three guys over to watch the game and we were worrying about the Giants. That was my basic concern on Tuesday morning: hoping the Giants would get better. That's how I was thinking. Two of those guys who watched the game with me -- they're gone.

Your biggest tragedy is a firefigther's best day of work. We're junkies for fire. So when we heard a plane had hit the towers, we thought it was a little Cessna, some little accident, but we knew it was going to be a good fire, a big one, we were ready, we were excited. That's our job, that's what we do, but we didn't realize we were going to war that morning.

timburketattoo.jpg Timmy Burke shows off the tattoo honoring the men of Ladder 101

We pulled up to the towers, the second building had just been hit, and it's roaring in flames, and suddenly there's gravel and debris everywhere, and body parts, and I saw what appeared to be a dog crumpled up but it was actually a man. Usually you've got a yeller at a scene like that, someone who has this uncomfortable urgency to him, but here everyone was yelling, "Go! Go! Go! --- and a "total recall" had gone out over the radios. That's when they pull in every firefighter everywhere across the city, and I was told there had never been a total recall in New York City history.

The bodies were falling and we heard on the scanner, "Watch out! Firefighter killed by a jumper," and we looked up. Boom. Boom. Boom, they fell. One of my close friends turned to me and said, "I have a bad feeling about this one." He's gone. Those were the last words I heard from him.

And we thought, for the people to be jumping like that, how hot is it up there? Aviation fuel burns at about 2,000 degrees; the fuel poured down the side of the building and the elevator pits. We weren't thinking about what the fire was doing to the steel, that steel fails after being exposed too long to temperatures like that. We weren't thinking about the fire fundamentals --- the concern was getting in and getting the people out. Except for one chief, who was saying, "It's burning too hot, It's been burning too hot for too long." He was kind of mumbling it, just realizing what was going to happen. He was a very good chief, very well known for this knowledge, and he was talking fundamentals. But no one thought the buildings would come down, or that they'd come down that fast. He was at the command post, and that whole post was wiped out, because they didn't have time to run.

The first building fell, I'm told in exactly 19 seconds. It popped, and came down making a sound like a freight-train. The cloud chased you. It was weird. It was banked down, to the ground, rolling, it was a cloud you could chew, it was like breathing muck, it wasn't smoke, it was a three-dimensional object: it was people, TVs, glass, concrete, asbestos. You have ten-story buildings that leave more debris that these two 110-story towers. Where is everything? Gone, vaporized, and that's why we're not finding more bodies.

Afterwards, there was an uneasy silence, an unsettling peace, and then the radios went crazy, maydays from under the rubble, the engines and the ladder trucks were burning out, a mass grave of them, 40 apparatuses in total. I was able to run, one of the few, and the only reason I'm alive is that I wasn't yet assigned to go into the towers. On the second day, a reporter came running up to me and asked, "Did you see any heroic acts in there?" I looked at him, I got angry, I said: "Are you outta your fuckin' mind?" We had grown men crying in the streets, and he wanted to talk about heroes. Who are the heroes?

ladder101wtc.jpg Ladder 101 under debris.

ladder101wtc2.jpg Ladder 101. Why.

Our battalion went in with a total of 43 men. We lost 20. Ladder-101 and Engine-202 went in with 12 guys; we came out with five. You've got to understand; there were no heroes in there. We were just doing our jobs. It'll never be known what the men in the towers did. There are 343 fireman who are missing. I knew about 40 of them. There should be 343 medals, no more no less.

The firehouse is a working wake now. The Fire Department bagpipe band, they usually do six funerals a year. Now they're doing six a day. And I feel like that old aunt we all have who reads the obituaries looking for people she knew. "Oh, here's one, I knew him." Here's a guy I played football with, here's a guy, we drank beers together, here's a guy I grew up with. I'm like that old aunt looking to see who's gone, and I'm 33 years old.

mcshanefun5.jpg With so many funerals to attend, the FDNY's Emerald Pipes and Drums Band needed to split up into smaller units.

At the end of this, we go home. We live a regular life. My wife was smart. She made me go to work in the backyard and clean up the dog shit. Keeping me busy. It's hard to fathom. You go to war, you go to the rubble dig, and then you come home to change a dirty diaper. You're trying to be a good man at both ends. You try to make sense of it. You gotta go home and walk your dog and pay your mortgage and take your son to school. Every firefighter is going through this, and some guys are saying they feel like this is their second chance, because they were guilty at first for being alive, and now they want to live more life. I have a second chance. To be with my wife and my four-month-old girl, Elizabeth. To live more life.

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