Even before the climb began Sunday in New York City, you could feel the deeper meaning in the morning darkness outside One World Trade Center, the building often called the Freedom Tower. At 4 a.m., Manhattan was as quiet as it gets. A cold May wind blew across two deep pits, centerpiece of a fountain at the heart of the national 9/11 Memorial.
That space is a monument to absence. Matching towers rose from that footprint until Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists flew two hijacked jets into the trade center. Another hijacked plane crashed into the Pentagon, while a fourth – its attackers under siege by passengers – fell to the ground in a field in Pennsylvania.
All told, almost 3,000 people were killed. Each one, said Michael Burke, had a story that deserves to be remembered. Yet certain tales of sacrifice become emblematic of the whole, such as the selflessness of Billy Burke, Michael’s older brother, a captain with the Fire Department of New York.
It was Michael’s idea to stage an annual stair climb in Billy’s honor at the new One World Trade, the gleaming glass skyscraper that dominates the landscape where the twin towers once stood. Billy’s family has deep upstate ties. On the morning of Sept. 11, before Billy made a choice of such courage it is almost unbearable to contemplate, he called many people he loved and warned them to stay out of Manhattan.
One of those calls went to Wanda Burke, Michael’s wife. Billy did not want his brother to be at risk.
“That’s what stays with me, the concern he always showed for others,” said Michael, 59, a graduate of SUNY Fredonia in Chautauqua County and a resident of the Bronx. “My goal from the beginning was for all of these people to be remembered. I’m glad that 15 years later, people are still mentioning my brother’s name.”
A few years ago, Michael read of how cities across the nation were holding stair climbs in tall buildings, competitive events meant to test endurance and conditioning. Michael immediately saw the idea as a fitting homage for his older brother and more than 340 other firefighters who died after the trade center was attacked.
Amid the chaos on Sept. 11, Billy – a captain with Engine 21 – led the men in his command to the 27th floor of the north tower. Their mission was to evacuate any stragglers. Billy, 46, was searching for civilians when the building shook -- a nauseating sensation -- and he ran to a window and looked outside. The south tower had collapsed, shaking the ground. Billy, whose father had been a deputy fire chief in New York, knew the building where he stood would be next to go.
By radio, Billy ordered his men to leave the tower and go downstairs. He promised that he’d be right behind them.
As he moved toward the stairwell, he had to make his choice. Billy encountered another firefighter with two civilian office workers. One, Ed Beyea, was a big man in a wheelchair. Beyea, a paraplegic, had suffered a catastrophic injury as a young man in Bath, in Steuben County. The elevators weren’t working. He could not use the stairs. A close friend and co-worker, Abe Zelmanowitz, refused to leave without his friend.
Billy took over. He ordered the firefighter to go downstairs. He gave the same command to another group of firefighters who came upon them, a few minutes later. Knowing there was almost no time left, Billy made a selfless decision of legendary dimensions. It saved many lives.
He stayed with Beyea and Zelmanowitz, until the tower fell.
That sacrifice was in the thoughts of more than 600 participants who finished Sunday’s second annual climb, men and women who ascended more than 100 flights of stairs until their legs were burning, until they gasped for breath. The climb was coordinated by the Tunnel to Towers Foundation, dedicated to Stephen Siller, another firefighter killed Sept. 11. The event raised more than $300,000 to build specialized housing for disabled veterans wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan.
“This is tremendous, a great thing to do,” said Frank Siller, chairman of the foundation and Stephen’s older brother, praising those who took part. Two months ago, Siller and other organizers overcame a temporary attempt by the Durst Organization, the building’s landlord, to halt the climb. To Siller, that would have dishonored hundreds of firefighters who ascended to their deaths on that September morning, a collective memory that turns the area into a sacred space.
Their courage was the heart and soul of Sunday’s gathering. As weary participants reached the 102nd floor and then caught their breath at an observatory, they were asked to sign their names to a great board. It allowed them to explain in writing why they made the climb.
The answers were heartbreaking. Many dedicated their efforts to specific firefighters, police officers, passengers or office workers lost on Sept. 11: “Always loved, always remembered,” someone wrote of Lt. Peter Freund, who died that morning. Others offered simple notes vowing never to forget -- or direct messages of appreciation to the fire captain who refused to leave anyone behind.
“I made it, Billy,” one climber wrote.
The Burkes are hardly a solemn clan. Billy’s niece Alyson, 32, an engineer raised in Syracuse, played a quiet role in organizing the climb. She also formed a “Silly Uncle Billy” team that raised more than $13,000 for the Sillers and their foundation.
The team is named for the way she remembers her uncle. Alyson has now spent almost half her life without Billy, fueling her drive to make sure he’s not forgotten. She recalled how he would toss her in the air when she was little. He was also a lifeguard for many years at Jones Beach. When Alyson, as a teenager, took a similar job at a Syracuse pool, she’d call Billy whenever she had an especially hard day.
Her uncle, this charismatic firefighter in New York City, always made time to hear the stories of his teenage niece.
“He was overwhelming,” Alyson said. “I can still draw up what he looked like, what he sounded like. He had a big personality. He was loud and loved to laugh. He was always a lot of fun.”
Put to the choice, Billy surrendered that life for others. Elizabeth Burke Berry of Syracuse, Alyson’s mother and Billy’s older sister, described her brother as a good-looking bachelor and a kind of renaissance man. He was a photographer. He wrote poetry and short stories. He studied the Civil War and could lead informal tours of the battlefield at Gettysburg.
He was also a guy with a relentless sense of humor, a guy who loved a cold beer. On the night of Sept. 11, Michael Burke planned to see his older brother at a fundraiser for a hospital burn center, where Billy was going to be an honorary bartender.
Instead, before Billy climbed the stairs in a tower that was burning so hot it melted steel, he made calls to warn those he loved to stay out of Manhattan.
Almost 15 years later, hundreds of climbers assembled as the sun rose above a transformed skyline. Some – such as Sam Kalfa, 31, a native of North Buffalo – had Western New York roots. Kalfa is a certified public accountant in New York. After reading about the climb, he was drawn to it by the notion of the physical challenge.
He also sought a precious quality he felt in the aftermath of tragedy. We live in a divisive and angry time. Kalfa recalled how for a brief moment in 2001, as people grieved over all that was lost in the attacks, even strangers showed concern and kindness toward each other.
“It was the only time in my life I saw everyone in this country come together,” Kalfa said.
He felt that again, for one sweet morning, as he climbed for Billy Burke.
Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Read more of his work by following this link to his archive.