A Firefighter, a Hero 'That's Billy'

September 16, 2001

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 heart."

--Sandra Peddie (Newsday)