Monument Remembers A Hero By Land and Sea

By Leo Ebersole

July 28, 2002

Billy Burke wore many hats and wore them well.

As a firefighter with Engine 21 in Manhattan, he spent the last moments of his life helping others to safety. As a lifeguard at Robert Moses State Park, he showed rookies the ropes and taught them to enjoy the job he loved.

So it was fitting that both firefighters and lifeguards gathered yesterday to honor Burke, 46, who died after the World Trade Center's Tower Two collapsed on Sept. 11. About 350 friends and relatives joined them to unveil a monument at Robert Moses Field 3 to William F. Burke Jr. - "captain" to some, "silly uncle Billy" to others, and hero to all.

The son of a fire chief, and a firefighter for more than 20 years, Burke, who grew up in Plainview with three brothers and two sisters and lived in Manhattan, was a man who loved a good time and whose prime concern was the well-being of others, his brother James of Port Jefferson, said.

"He was whatever you needed him to be," said Stu Kaplan, Burke's friend and fellow lifeguard, who spearheaded the monument project.

Kaplan said he drew up a plan for the monument with help from Burke's relatives and took it to the state Parks Department. State Parks Commissioner Bernadette Castro gave it the go-ahead, and Kaplan and other lifeguards organized a series of fund-raisers to pay for it.

Yesterday, the monument, a stone bearing a plaque with an engraving of Burke and a dedication, stood sentinel on the beach as Burke had.

"We can say hello to him every morning," said Sue Lane, a Robert Moses lifeguard who worked with Burke for six years.

Ladder trucks from the Islip and Deer Park fire departments formed an arch over the ceremony with an American flag hanging from the top.

Burke would have thought the tribute too much, "but it's well deserved," said Lt. Michael Fagan of Engine Co. 43 in the Bronx, who swam with Burke in high school.

In fact, Burke had introduced Fagan to Sonja, the woman who would later become Fagan's wife. "He thought he was a professional matchmaker after that," Michael Fagan said.

Along with his passion for his work, Burke had taken an interest in photography shortly before he died. He would send friends pictures with notes scrawled on the back.

"It still hasn't sunk in," said Jimmy Cash, a firefighter with Engine Co. 69 in Manhattan and a Jones Beach lifeguard. "I still expect him to pop up and send a picture."