Denying my brother’s identity at the memorial

By Michael Burke

Recently I received my “names verification packet” from the “National September 11 Memorial and Museum at the World Trade Center” foundation.

It informed me that I may ask for my brother, Capt. William F. Burke, Jr., Eng. Co. 21, FDNY, to be identified in just about any way I like at the memorial. As long as it isn’t “Capt. William F. Burke, Jr.”

It’s true that Billy rode down to the site in the officer’s seat of the rig, Engine 21. That rig’s half-destroyed shell now sits out at a hanger at J.F.K. Airport with many other artifacts of the day. The front compartment where he sat that day, from which he led his men to the W.T.C., is burnt out and destroyed. It will be featured in the 9/11 museum.

He wore a blue shirt embroidered with “Captain William F. Burke, Jr.,” over the heart. He wore a turn out coat with the name “BURKE” across the back, under the initials “FDNY.”

On his head he wore the iconic fireman’s leather helmet, the white letters “21” on a black background on it, signifying an engine company. Beneath that was the word “Captain.” In the famous film by the French brothers of that day he can be seen in the lobby wearing that helmet. Having received the word to go up, he calmly removes it, throws a rescue rope over his shoulder and returns the helmet to his head. The camera moves away; returns and he is gone.

Nothing of that coat, that shirt, that helmet or of Billy has ever been found or identified. He belongs to history. The memorial will deny that history.

Years ago the F.D.N.Y. families and America were told that the firefighters who died for all of us at the W.T.C. could not be identified in any way at all. Then after years of protest by family members, it was by company alone. Now it’s company and department. But rank? That we, the families and America and they, those who gave all 9/11, cannot have.

It has become painfully clear that the decision is arbitrary and even has a tinge of vindictiveness to it.

I am told, cheerfully by the foundation, that there will be “kiosks” on the site from which visitors could gather information of 9/11. And there he will be identified by “Captain!” But steps away, on the memorial his name must be engraved without the rank he earned with his life.

At memorials around the city, including street renamings approved by the city, the firefighters have been honored by rank. At memorials sponsored by private interests without any input from politicians or their cultural experts, ranks have always been included, including at the Engine 10, Ladder 10 firehouse across the street from ground zero.

Somehow at each of these, nobody stands before them and “ranks” the death or sacrifice they see before them. Nobody needs Michael Bloomberg or the foundation to control what we know in order to dictate what we think and feel. The public and families all clearly support them.

“America’s Quilt,” which honors all 343 firefighters killed and will be featured in the 9/11 museum, was made by volunteer quilters across America. It includes rank for them all. It is evident that America endorses honoring them by rank.

The decision to rule out ranks was made by the board, chaired by Mayor Bloomberg, is final I was told and no, I cannot meet with the board. This is a public entity supported by public funds. I am the voice of a guy who gave his life, 9/11. But I cannot meet with the board. I don’t know where any of them were, Sept. 11.

The board, the foundation tells me, based their decision on the Vietnam War memorial which does not include ranks. However, as I have written here before, a memorial in Washington, D.C., to a war fought on the other side of the world is not a viable model for a 9/11 memorial at the W.T.C. site. This is the historic site of the event.

Proper models would have been, and are, Gettysburg, Pearl Harbor and Normandy. And the Pentagon 9/11 memorial. At each of these ranks are provided for those who died in service at that place.

The W.T.C. memorial will include those killed at the Pentagon. At the Pentagon memorial, those career military personnel killed 9/11 are identified by rank; at the W.T.C. memorial they will not. At the W.T.C. in New York City ranks imply inequality; at the Pentagon they do not.

To identify ranks such as “Deputy Commissioner” Bill Feehan and “Chief of Dept.” Pete Ganci and “Fire Chaplain Father” Mychal Judge and all the chiefs, all the officers, and the hundreds of firefighters faithfully conveys the magnitude of the sacrifice.

I recently received an email from Capt. Marianne Monahan (ret.) F.D.N.Y., who I am sure, understands both equality and honor as well as anybody on the board. The ranks must be included, she wrote; “this is who they were and this is what they did.”

Which is remarkably close to my brother’s last words, besides the repeated order to his men, who with the civilian they saved all survived to “keep going. I’m right behind you.” Aware of the collapse of W.T.C. 2 and while assisting Ed Beyea, a quadriplegic and his friend Abe Zelmanowitz evacuate the north tower, he called a friend from somewhere near the 21st floor. She begged him to stay safe. “This is my job,” he told her, “this is who I am.”

Captain William F. Burke, Jr., Eng. Co. 21, FDNY.

Michael Bloomberg and the board of the memorial foundation will make a liar out of him.