Rendered by the Flame
Calling Capt. William F. Burke Jr. a firefighter is a little like referring to Elvis as an entertainer. Captain Burke took the job description and set it over the high flame of his personality, rendering something else entirely. "He always made everything better," said his brother Michael, "and in Manhattan, it's nice to be around somebody like that."
Like his father, who worked in the South Bronx in the 1960's when fires raged around the clock, Captain Burke, known as Billy, believed in putting his men first. On Sept. 11, he ordered them out of the north tower, his brother said, while he continued searching for people to rescue.
In Stuyvesant Town, the Manhattan residential complex where he had an apartment, Captain Burke, 46, enjoyed a parade of admirers. Some were romantic interests, penciled into his address book, drawn by his singular charm. "The first words out of his mouth every single time he met a woman were, 'Have you lost weight?' " his brother said. Then there were the neighbors he helped out. He liked to bicycle to his firehouse, Engine Company 21 on East 40th Street, but if he saw someone struggling with groceries, he'd screech to a halt.
He spent 25 summers working as a lifeguard at Robert Moses State Park, and a friend, Stuart Kaplan, remembered how the oldest living Jones Beach lifeguard turned up one day. The man was sickly and in a wheelchair, but his dearest wish was to swim in the ocean one last time. Captain Burke put an arm around him and helped him into the waves. Afterward, they shared a cold beer and then another. Everybody went home happy.
Profile published in THE NEW YORK TIMES on November 11, 2001.