By Mubarak Dahir
Originally published on Advocate.com September 11 2011 3:00 AM ET
Normally Chris Young wouldn’t have been anywhere near the World Trade Center. But on the morning of Tuesday, September 11, the 33-year-old actor was temping for the Marsh insurance firm and had volunteered to shuttle reports from the company’s midtown office to the 99th floor of 1 World Trade Center. He delivered the reports by 8:40 a.m. and then got back in the elevator for what would turn out to be the longest and scariest ride of his life.
Thousands of feet below, 38-year-old attorney David Draigh was just getting out of a taxi. His metered receipt recorded the time as 8:39 a.m. He then walked through the north tower’s revolving door and headed toward the elevators to go up to his 54th-floor office. Before he could get there, the building shook around him as American Airlines Flight 11 hammered into it. “Next thing I knew, a fireball of debris was headed right at me” says Draigh, who dived for shelter behind a steel planter. As black smoke mushroomed through the lobby, he choked for air and then jumped through the lobby’s blown-out windows. Once outside, he says, “I thought about my mother and my boyfriend, John. I was just glad to be alive.”
Directly across the street, Artie Van Why felt a tremor in his 23rd-floor office and ran out of the building. When he got outside, the city was unrecognizable. “It was like a war zone,” he says. Insulation, plaster, soot, and paper were everywhere. Van Why looked up to where the first plane had torpedoed the north tower of the World Trade Center and stared in disbelief. Then a disturbing realization hit him. “It wasn’t debris dropping from the buildings,” he says in a whisper. “It was bodies.”
Close by at Bellevue Hospital, “Ed,” a 23-year-old gay medical student who asked that his real name not be used, geared up to help with the anticipated deluge of casualties. He waited for hours. “There were no patients,” he says, “because everyone was dead.”
Now stuck by himself for about an hour inside the 1 World Trade Center elevator, Chris Young started to think he wasn’t going to make it out alive. By this time he’d felt two violent explosions. Never imagining that they came from airplanes pounding into the buildings, he figured they must have been bombs. He ripped off his shirt and covered his mouth so he could breathe; dust was creeping into the elevator. He tried to calm himself by reciting a monologue from Man of La Mancha, a part he’d recently performed. But as the air thickened and his emergency calls went unanswered, Young felt more and more trapped.
In Washington, D.C., Bill Craven was about to feel trapped too. Still in workout clothes from an early-morning session at the gym, where he’d seen the awful images from New York on TV, Craven, 42, hopped into his car and rushed to work. Traffic was crawling, though, and at 9:40 a.m. he found himself stalled in front of the Pentagon. The odd noise of a commercial aircraft overhead caught his attention. “It was flying way, way too low,” he says. “Then it came down like a kite doing a nosedive.” The plane plowed into the side of the Pentagon, producing a column of black smoke topped by brilliant orange flames. Oh, my God, I’m dead! Craven thought as chunks of the fortresslike edifice flew his way. He scrambled to lie flat on his stomach in the car while shards of debris rained from the skies.
In her 15th-floor office on Wall Street, Peg Byron, 45, communications director for Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, read of the first crash on the Internet. She then heard the other plane exploding into the second tower. She scrambled outside and had a clear view of the World Trade Center. “You could see a gash, and you knew people were dying,” she says. “But we didn’t grasp the magnitude.” After she returned to her office, the south tower collapsed, and Byron’s building was immediately evacuated. Coughing, she pulled her shirt over her mouth and groped her way outside into a street scene that was harshly different from the one she’d seen just minutes before. Particle-clogged wind had turned the clear day gray. “It looked like a hazy winter afternoon,” she says. The grainy air stung her eyes, coated her hair and clothes, and pricked her skin. She kept spitting grime to clear her mouth. Punching fruitlessly on her cell phone to reach her father, she joined hundreds of numb New Yorkers in an uncertain march to an uncertain future.
It was 10:05 a.m. when the south tower of the World Trade Center disintegrated into a graveyard of steel, concrete, and ash. The collapse violently shook the north tower elevator—where Chris Young was still trapped—for the third time that morning.
“I really started to freak out then,” he says. “I thought that whatever was wrong, it should be under control by now.” Then, for the first time, he tried to pry open the doors. It was impossible. He tried again when the power went out in the building 20 minutes later, and they opened easily.
When he was finally able to step out of the elevator, Young discovered he had been marooned on the first floor the entire time. Fallen building parts and shattered glass covered the lobby floor. Everything was coated in pink and gray dust. No one was in sight. Dazed, he just stood there for a moment until two firefighters yelled, “We’ve got to get you out of here! Run!” Two minutes later Young felt the earth shake for a fourth time. And as he sprinted from the building, he looked over his shoulder and saw the north tower crumble like a sandcastle.
In the hours and days that followed the catastrophe, life for gay men and lesbians in New York City and Washington, D.C., completely changed—as it did for the rest of the nation.
The southern tip of Manhattan—including the gay mecca of Greenwich Village—became a militarized zone. Only residents flashing photo IDs could pass beyond the patrolled border. At the far end of Christopher Street, military and fire trucks zoomed up and down the West Side Highway. A closed sign hung in the window of the famed Stonewall Inn.
Overnight, “thousands of fliers of missing persons went up,” recalls Jeffrey DiGangi, a 36-year-old designer from the West Village. Lampposts, sides of buildings, and telephone booths were wallpapered with the images of lost strangers.
But in the devastation, there was also a sense of community that many had not seen since the worst days of AIDS. Another West Village resident, 39-year-old Gary Spino, says he walked around the neighborhood those first nights “because I wanted to be with others, and the streets were filled with gay and lesbian people. Everyone was crying and hugging.”
Spino eventually made his way to the Hudson River and joined friends from his gym in a human assembly line—spreading mustard on bread, piling on lunch meat, slicing tomatoes, and bagging sandwiches, fruit, and cookies into care packages for the rescue workers.
“It was the greatest thing I’ve been a part of in ages,” he says. “It wasn’t about being a gay person or a straight person or a financial person or an artist. There were little women in nuns’ outfits standing next to gym bunnies in tight shorts, and we were all pitching in together.”
In this issue, The Advocate salutes some of the brave gay men and lesbians who gave their all—sometimes their lives—during the attacks. We tell their stories so that their voices as American heroes, and particularly as gay and lesbian citizens, are not lost.
But we know these are just some of the tales of loss and courage. In the coming days, as more names and stories of American heroes are unveiled, other gay men and lesbians will surely be among them.
The Advocate joins the the nation not just in mourning our collective losses but also in celebrating the finest our community has to offer.
Father Mychal F. Judge
New York City
The fire department chaplain died while administering last rites at ground zero.
When news of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center reached Father Mychal F. Judge, the silver-haired chaplain of the Fire Department of New York did what he’d done many times: He rushed to the side of the firefighters he so affectionately called his “boys.”
While burning debris filled the air and steel beams melted under apocalyptic heat, the Franciscan priest took off his helmet and knelt beside a mortally wounded firefighter to administer last rites. As he knelt, debris crashed down from the one of the towers, striking him as he prayed and killing him. Judge, 68, was the first person to be officially declared a victim from ground zero.
Among the more than 3,000 mourners who attended Judge’s funeral — held September 15 at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Manhattan — were former president Bill Clinton and New York senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. Bill Clinton called Judge’s death “a special loss” and said, “We should live his life as an example of what has to prevail.”
Judge’s friends in the gay community couldn’t agree more. In the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when many priests were, at best, silent on the issue, Judge was one of a small pool of priests who would preside over gay men’s funerals. Soon it became apparent that it was more than Judge’s incredibly big heart that helped him identify with gay men and lesbians.
“It’s 1991, and I’m standing on the street at the [St. Patrick’s Day] parade, doing a story” about the event’s ban on gay groups, recalls Andy Humm, who cohosts the New York cable program Gay USA. Most Catholic priests ran when they saw Humm approach. “But here’s this guy in a Franciscan robe, gesturing to me to come over and interview him,” says Humm. While speaking to the TV journalist, Judge not only spoke out against antigay bigotry but also, a couple of years later, came out to him. “He always tried to be the image of the [Catholic] church that is inclusive and compassionate,” Humm says.
Edward Maloney, who runs Manhattan’s Out of the Closet AIDS Thrift Shop, also fondly recalls his first encounter with Judge.
“He whooshes into the store in this flowing brown cassock,” Maloney says, laughing. “And he’s talking loudly and all bubbly, and everyone stops what they are doing to find out who he is. He was very theatrical.” From that day on, Judge visited the shop regularly with donations. Once, when a neighborhood dry-cleaning store closed and gave away unclaimed apparel, Judge scooped up 500 garments and shuttled them to the store.
Maloney once asked if Judge would donate a fire chief’s hat to the store. Judge rolled his eyes and answered, “Get in line! Do you know how many gay men want one of those!”
When Maloney inquired how the priest survived in the convervative archdiocese, “he put his fingers to his lips as if to shush the question.”
“Father Judge was neither out nor closeted,” Maloney says. “He knew how to walk that fine line and work behind the scenes. He brought bravery, dedication, loyalty — and a touch of sexuality — to the two institutions he cherished: the church and the fire department. He loved moving in those two male worlds.”
Friends are certain he saved lives by keeping the hijackers from their intended target.
Evidence suggests that some passengers aboard United Airlines Flight 93 struggled with the hijackers, successfully foiling their plan to ram the plane into a target of national significance. And friends and family of Mark Bingham say it wasn’t a coincidence that the 31-year-old public relations executive was onboard the aircraft that crashed outside Pittsburgh.
“There is no doubt in my mind that Mark is a hero and did everything in his power to keep the plane from hurting innocent people,” says San Francisco resident Paul Holm, 40, Bingham’s former partner. Holm cites two incidents in which Bingham overpowered would-be muggers, one of whom was even armed with a gun. “Mark saved my life at least once, probably twice, in the past,” Holm says, “and I know he saved countless others” by his heroics on Flight 93.
At a September 17 San Francisco memorial for Bay Area victims, California senator Barbara Boxer singled out Bingham for praise as an American hero. Boxer also presented a folded U.S. flag to Holm in Bingham’s honor.
Holm met Bingham in December 1993, at a Christmas party thrown by a mutual friend. “At 7 a.m. the next morning my phone rang, and it was Mark, calling for a date.”
He describes his former boyfriend as a handsome, confident, and competitive man who loved sports and played on a gay rugby team. “He hated to lose — at anything,” Holm recalls.
A graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, Bingham was a strapping 6-foot-4, 225-pound man who, Holm says, moved comfortably in many circles. “At a French restaurant, he loved foie gras and sauternes, but he was also happy sitting on the couch with a burger, watching the football game.”
Peer-Olaf Richter, an account manager at the Bingham Group, the public relations company Bingham founded, says “being in the office with him was like being on the field with him. He was daring professionally as well as physically.” Richter too is convinced that Bingham would have been involved in any attempt to thwart the hijackers.
Another friend, Mike Eccles of Oakland, Calif., describes Bingham as fearless and recalls being riveted by Bingham’s stories of recently running with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. During the adventure, Bingham was gored by one of the bulls. Says Eccles: “Mark loved telling that story and wore the scar as a souvenir.”
Her passions were human rights, her Victorian home, and, of course, her partner.
Carol Flyzik took a long weekend off from work before September 11, when she was scheduled to fly to Los Angeles to give a series of product demonstrations. She just wanted to spend some quality time at her Plaistow, N.H., home with her partner of nearly 13 years, Nancy Walsh. “We had a lovely weekend,” Walsh remembers. “We went to the beach, and we had a wonderful lobster dinner on the porch.”
Refreshed from the weekend, Flyzik got up at 5 a.m. that Tuesday morning in order to catch her flight in Boston. Before heading out the door she gave Walsh a hug and a kiss and promised to give her a call from L.A. But her plane, American Airlines Flight 11, never made it to California. It was the first of two to crash into the World Trade Center.
Both registered nurses, Flyzik and Walsh met while working in the same hospital emergency room. Their relationship started off as a friendship—Walsh was married at the time, with three children. But after six months, Walsh says, it was obvious there was an attraction between the two that just grew “stronger and stronger.”
Eventually Flyzik moved in with Walsh and her children, who, Walsh says, learned to love Flyzik as another parent. After about 10 years, when the kids had grown up, the couple moved to Flyzik’s Victorian home, which they were busy remodeling.
The 40-year-old Flyzik made a career change too. She started working as the supervisor of marketing for Meditech Inc. in Framingham, Mass., where friends and coworkers remember her as a gregarious woman who loved her job and enjoyed interacting with others.
A member of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay and lesbian civil rights organization, Flyzik was also a strong human rights advocate. In fact, the couple often planned their vacations around gay rights celebrations throughout the country. This past summer they had gone to San Diego for that city’s pride celebration. They did the same the previous year in Washington, D.C.
“She was just a wonderful human being who wanted people to accept her for who she was,” Walsh says. “Carol would have been so proud that this was being covered in The Advocate. That would have been very important to her.”
As an American Airlines copilot, he was a strong advocate for domestic-partner benefits at the company.
David Charlebois marched in uniform and helped carry the banner for the National Gay Pilots Association at the Millennium March on Washington last year. For Charlebois, it was the climax of his coming-out process.
“It was a big deal to march in uniform,” says Michael Walker, a fellow American Airlines pilot and close friend. “Most pilots you work with are ex-military, and that certainly affects their thinking and the tone of the profession.”
In recent years, however, Charlebois, while never exactly closeted, had grown tired of being discreet. As he became more open at work, he joined the fight for domestic-partner benefits in the airline industry and raised money for gay youth through the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League. He also took the incredibly public step of marching in Washington.
“We did the parade route twice,” says Doug Wood, 38, a Boston-based American Airlines pilot and friend who marched in uniform beside Charlebois that day. “After we finished marching [with the gay pilots group], we ran to the back of the parade and joined GLEAM,” the gay and lesbian employees group of American Airlines. “Dave particularly wanted to walk with the gay male flight attendants, who gave him so much support at work.”
The 39-year-old Charlebois wore his uniform for the last time on September 11, when American Airlines Flight 77, which he was copiloting, was overtaken by hijackers and crashed into the Pentagon.
“He had a lot of friends because friendship was important to him,” says Paul Poux, 39, a friend who stayed with Charlebois and his partner of almost 14 years, Tom Hay, at their Washington, D.C., home during the Millennium March. Although Charlebois had stayed up late hosting a party that festive weekend, Poux says that when he got up at 6 a.m., Charlebois was already in the kitchen brewing coffee and putting out bagels for his guests.
Poux first met Charlebois while the two were in seventh grade together in France. The son of a State Department official, Charlebois spent several childhood years in Paris, a city he grew to call his second home.
“He flew to Paris whenever he had the free time,” says Steve Gdula, 37, a close friend who lives just two blocks from Charlebois’s Dupont Circle home. “He would say that when he was on his deathbed he didn’t want to regret not making that last trip over there.”
He also loved the beach, and he and Hay had just purchased a summer house in the gay resort Rehoboth Beach, Del. “If Paris was his second city, Rehoboth was like his second neighborhood,” Walker says.
But when Charlebois was home, one of his top priorities was his elderly parents, who live in nearby Front Royal, Va. Charlebois would accompany them to Catholic church services, after which they would have lunch together.
“He was a person who was very concerned about giving back to the people and communities he loved,” Walker says. “He always wanted to do the right things.”
The Brandhorst-Gamboa family
The dads and their adopted toddler were returning from an annual trip to P-town.
When J.B. Campise remembers his friends Ronald Gamboa and Dan Brandhorst, he conjures up the images of a blue Miata convertible, towel-wrapped heads, dark sunglasses, a pack of cigarettes, and a box of strong mints.
It was 1995, and the three men had moved together from the New York City area to Los Angeles. Gamboa had just gotten the Miata, and “he loved to tool around in it with the top down,” Campise says. Gamboa and Campise would wrap their heads in towels, don dark sunglasses, and drive around while taking long drags on strong cigarettes. “We thought we were so Hollywood,” Campise says, laughing at the memory.
But Brandhorst hated when his partner smoked, so before the night was over Gamboa would stuff his mouth with breath mints to cover up the smell. “Dan was the more serious, methodical, and restrained one,” Campise says. “Ron was the whimsical, flamboyant one.”
Visually, they stood out as opposites too, he notes. Gamboa, who was born in the Philippines but came to the United States when he was merely 6 weeks old, was petite. Brandhorst, on the other hand, towered over Gamboa at 6 foot 2.
“Dan and Ron were two opposites who complemented each other in many ways,” Campise says.
Gamboa, 33, who managed three Gap stores in Santa Monica, and Brandhorst, 42, a lawyer and partner in PricewaterhouseCoopers, had been together 14 years when their hijacked United Airlines Flight 175 plowed into the south tower of the World Trade Center, killing them and their 3-year-old adopted son, David. The family was returning to their Hollywood hills home from their annual trip to Provincetown, Mass.
“They were such devoted fathers,” remembers friend Danny Levy, a 39-year-old graphic artist in West Hollywood who originally met the couple during a gay ski week in Aspen, Colo., five years ago. “They loved to dress David in the cutest outfits.”
The family was active in a monthly potluck social for gay dads, dubbed the Pop Luck Group. When Levy mentioned he was thinking about adopting too, Gamboa and Brandhorst introduced him to the brunch gatherings. “Dan thought it’d be good for me to see there were all these other gay fathers,” Levy says. “Ron thought maybe I could meet a cute single gay dad.”
Levy is now in the process of adopting a child himself and credits Gamboa and Brandhorst as his mentors. “Seeing them with David was such a big influence on helping me make this decision,” he says. “They didn’t slink away to suburbia or shelter their child from the gay world. They showed me I could raise my child in my own community.”
The National Geographic educator died doing what he lived for — traveling.
When James Joseph Ferguson was growing up in Mississippi, he always wanted to be the teacher or the librarian when he played school. Friends say the role reflected Ferguson’s passion for order as well as his love for education.
As an adult, Ferguson, a redhead whose Southern drawl was an integral part of his charm, was the director of geography education outreach at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. He developed education programs for schools nationwide, training teachers and taking kids on excursions around the world. “He adored kids and he breathed geography,” says Channing Greene, 38, of Chicago, who met Ferguson when they were students at the University of Southern Mississippi.
American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon after taking off from Washington’s Dulles airport, was to be the first leg of Ferguson’s trip to California’s Channel Islands, where he was to conduct an educational field trip.
Travel was a central part of the 39-year-old Ferguson’s life. “He could always tell you all this wealth of information about the people and the culture and the land of any place we visited,” says Ed Kaczmarek, 36, of New York, one of Ferguson’s closest friends.
And Ferguson was a stickler for more than geographical facts. He paid close attention to the details of his friends’ lives. “The night before he died he called and left a message on my machine to let me know he’d dropped my birthday card in the mail,” says friend David Merlin Duke of Nashville.
Ferguson’s other passions included clothes, music, cooking, dancing, and his dog, Winston. “When Joe got up in the morning, first thing he’d do was blast the music,” says Kaczmarek. “He’d dance while he got dressed, and I mean he dressed. Joe didn’t have clothes—he had ‘outfits.’ ”
Ferguson’s comfort with his sexuality aided others in their coming-out process, particularly his friends from the South. Duke remembers looking up to Ferguson as a mentor when Duke was struggling with his own coming-out.
“Joe was somebody from the South, where we’re too polite to talk about homosexuality.” Duke says. “As another Southerner, he helped me develop a strong sense of pride and the ability to express it publicly.”
The software developer and concert violinist loved life and knew how to have a good time.
Every time Graham Berkeley parted from his boyfriend, Tim Fristoe, he was sure to say, “I love you.”
“It was just one aspect of his intensely romantic personality,” the 37-year-old Fristoe says through tears.
September 11 was no different. Berkeley, 37, director of product development for software giant Compuware, declared his love to Fristoe before boarding United Flight 175 in Boston to attend a software conference in Los Angeles. His plane was the second to crash into the World Trade Center.
Fristoe, who lives in Provincetown, had just met Berkeley over the July 4 holiday at Spiritus, a popular local pizza joint. “It was cruise central,” he says. He had seen Berkeley, who lived in Boston, several times earlier in the summer and had made a point to meet him: “I thought he was just so beautiful.”
Born and raised in Great Britain, Berkeley had been a U.S. resident for more than 10 years. “He loved America and was proud to live here,” Fristoe says. He also was enraptured with American kitsch and pop culture, including South Park and Sex and the City.
Before working with Compuware, Berkeley was a concert violinist. A graduate of London’s Royal College of Music, he had played in the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. His other passions included opera and the theater, and he would frequently go to New York City to catch shows, according to Brian Reiser, a 27-year-old telecommunications manager who says Berkeley planned to move to New York this fall. “He loved the energy of this city.”
His good times were hardly limited to orchestra halls and theaters, however. Berkeley was also fond of dancing into the early morning at famous New York gay nightclubs such as Twilo and the Roxy. When he removed his shirt on the dance floor, as he often did, he revealed a toned body with a Maori tribal tattoo that spread from his left chest to his back.
Fristoe says admirers sometimes took the liberty of touching his boyfriend’s tattoos and skin, something Berkeley professed to dislike. “But I know he reveled in the attention,” he says, adding that Berkeley also protested when being tickled but truly enjoyed that too. “He loved to laugh.”
The vice president of a World Trade Center firm was also a fun-loving aunt and a competitive disco dancer.
Described as a direct person who always got straight to her point, 43-year-old Pamela Boyce was a driven woman who loved competitive disco dancing and being an aunt to two nieces and a nephew.
Boyce, a resident of Brooklyn, was the assistant vice president of accounting for Carr Futures Inc. She was working in her 92nd-floor office at 1 World Trade Center when the building was hit by the hijacked American Airlines Flight 11.
Despite holding a full-time job, she had recently earned an associate’s degree and graduated with stellar marks. She was planning to continue her education, seeking bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
Family was an integral part of her life, and she served as a spirited Lamaze coach during her sister’s pregnancy with one of her nieces. In the summer months, she was a beach enthusiast who cherished getting tans and relaxing on the shore.
But Catherine Anello, her partner of 61⁄2 years, said that while Boyce delighted in life, she was not afraid of death. The two had discussed the topic several times, and Boyce had said, “Don’t mourn my death; celebrate my life,” Anello told the Los Angeles Times. “I’m not afraid to die,” she had said, “because where I’m going is beautiful.”
The freelance writer found herself on a historic fireboat, pumping much-needed seawater to ground zero.
As firefighters and rescue workers rushed to battle the blaze of melting iron and crumbled concrete where the World Trade Center towers once stood, damaged water mains and destroyed fire hydrants left them dangerously low on water. In response, a bevy of fireboats docked at the western sea wall of Manhattan island within hours, furiously pumping seawater to land.
There too was the John J. Harvey, a 70-year-old fireboat long retired from the fire department. Onboard, a crew of history buffs and volunteers—who had spent years restoring the boat to working condition out of an interest in historic preservation—were busy making history themselves.
Among them was assistant engineer Jessica DuLong, a 28-year-old bisexual freelance writer from Brooklyn. “The boat was just a few hundred yards from the World Trade Center,” she says. “We were staring into the mouth of a treacherous scene.” At times, she says, “it was hard to breathe; we were all choking from the smoke. But we just kept working. It was a job we knew had to get done.”
For three days and nights, DuLong worked with her team around the clock, pumping water as needed. During sporadic periods of rest, she slept on a makeshift bed pulled together from the boat’s kitchen table and a fetid mattress.
When DuLong wasn’t repairing seals on water pumps, she would jump onshore and help sort the tons of donated goods pouring into the site. DuLong weeded through the donations and separated the needed items from the useless.
“There never seemed to be enough respirators, gloves, flashlights, or hard hats,” she says. “But we had more Pampers and hand puppets than we knew what to do with.”
At one point during DuLong’s grueling three days, panic struck the firefighters and rescue workers as rumor spread that yet another building was about to collapse. DuLong was onshore sorting donations when she was overtaken by a stampede of men running for safety. She joined the race for cover, finally jumping on her boat and scurrying for shelter. “To be honest,” she whispers, “I was petrified, I was terrified.”
But she is proud of the work she and the others on the John J. Harvey accomplished. The fire department sent the crew a message saying the water they pumped probably saved 200 lives.
New York City
At a high school one block from the World Trade Center this principal got all 750 of his students to safety.
Second period had just begun at the High School for Economics and Finance, located just one block from the World Trade Center, when principal Patrick Burke heard a loud boom and felt his office shake.
“It’s a bomb,” the 54-year-old thought. Immediately, he pressed the fire alarm button, putting in place a shelter plan that would move everyone into the hallways of the 10-story school building. Then he heard the second rumble, felt a second vibration, and made his way outside. There police told him both towers were on fire and could topple onto the school any moment. Burke knew he had to get his kids out fast.
“I knew everyone’s welfare depended on me giving the impression that everything was going to be OK,” he says. “I just concentrated on that.” In a level voice he announced an evacuation plan over the P.A. system—using exits farthest from the World Trade Center.
After the evacuation, Burke stayed in the building and conducted a room-by-room, floor-by-floor inspection. Only when he was convinced he was the last one did he leave the building.
He hadn’t walked more than two blocks when the south tower crashed down. “That was the most frightening time,” he says. “I thought it was the end.” Unable to outrun the cloud of rubble and smoke, Burke, the school nurse, and a teacher ran into a nearby parking garage for shelter. As they were engulfed by dust and debris, “everything went pitch-black,” Burke says.
“Then, being a Catholic, I got on my knees and started saying Hail Marys,” he says. “I was sure my number was up.”
After a few minutes the blackness turned to gray, and Burke found himself still alive. But he knew he still had 750 young people huddled in Battery Park, so he headed there. At the park a restaurant donated tablecloths, which were ripped into strips and handed to the students to cover their mouths. He then organized teachers to take groups of 20 or so students out of the area. He himself rode with 15 students on a tugboat to northern Manhattan, where he put each of the kids on a bus or train home to safety. Only then did he go home to his worried partner.
Burke dismisses the hero label. “It’s just part of the love of working with kids,” he says. “In a time of catastrophe, your foremost objective is their protection. It’s not something you think about. It’s a reflex.”