When James Burke heard Osama bin Laden had been killed by U.S. forces he and two of his children were looking through photographs for a memorial to honor his brother William, a captain in the New York City Fire Department who had died in the north tower on 9/11 when it came crashing down.
“We were looking at pictures on my daughter’s laptop when she got an email at about 11:30 p.m.,” he said.
With only a few months before the ten year anniversary of the American tragedy that changed his family forever, Burke was looking at photos for a memorial down at field 3 of the beach at Robert Moses where his brother spent more than twenty years as a lifeguard.
When he first heard the news he wasn't sure how to feel about it.
“I had a mix emotions,” he said. “I am numb to it right now.”
One thing that Burke is very sure about is the job that the U.S. service men and women did to get the job done.
“I am very, very grateful to the armed services for what they did,” he said. “I couldn’t ask for anything better.”
He was especially happy that no Americans were killed during the final operation.
Over the years, Burke said that he questioned whether bin Laden was still alive. Though in the end, given the hate bin Laden spewed at America, Burke found some irony in the terrorist’s location.
“I’m not surprised he wasn’t living in a cave,” said Burke. “I guess he was more of a capitalist than he let on, living in a mansion somewhere.”
He said he has spoken with a couple of other family members and they have the same mix of emotions.
“I’m OK with that,” he said. “I need some time to let it sink in.”
Burke said that after he heard about bin Laden late last night, he watched the president's speech and then woke up to go to work in the morning.
“You get busy with life,” he said. “When you have a little bit of downtime you get emotional.”
According to James Burke, his brother was a 20-year veteran of the fire department and was captain of Engine 21 in midtown Manhattan located on 40th street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues.
In September 2001, Captain William Burke was in the north tower of the World Trade Center with another FDNY captain when the south tower collapsed. The two ordered their men to get out of the tower although at the time the firemen had no idea the twin tower to the one they were in had already fallen.
“All of his men got out,” Burke said.
Heroically, Burke stayed behind to help a man in a wheelchair, but the north tower fell before they could get out. His men said they heard Burke on his radio encouraging them saying over his radio, “I’ll meet you by the rig” and “I’m right behind you.”
In a story told many times over, Captain Jay Jonas miraculously survived the collapse of the north tower in a stairwell along with two office workers he was assisting on the way down the stairs. William Burke didn’t make it out but Jonas lived to tell Burke’s story along with his own.
After his death, Engine 21 honored Burke with a t-shirt that read “In memory of Captain William Burke.” Some firemen got onto the set of the sitcom Friends and gave Matt LeBlanc the t-shirt.
“He was excited about getting the shirt and put it on,” said Burke. “He filmed the show with the shirt on in some of the scenes.”
Now that the man who masterminded the events of 9/11 is dead he said that he doesn’t get an immediate sense of closure.
“I guess maybe I will,” he said. “Right now I don’t feel it.”
Part of the reason Burke says is that ever since that day he’s constantly reminded of it.
“You never really get away from it,” he said. “Every time you pick up the paper there’s something in there about it. It’s always in your face. There is always something about it.”
Now that bin Laden has been killed, the whole thing is in the papers again.
“It’s on the front page a lot of time,” he said. “Now it’s making headlines again.”