A Local Firefighter Hangs Up His Helmet

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 Local Firefighter John Burke has hung his black and yellow jacket up. Wine With Sue’s singer has given up the rig, but not quite the gigs. The band will play on with John as its frontman but after a 25-year career with the FDNY, the time was right to start his next chapter. Following his retirement, Burke reflected on his long career, including being a firefighter in his own neighborhood during some of Rockaway’s toughest moments.

While many firefighters in Rockaway follow in family shoes, Burke had no legacy with the FDNY. “I was the first on the job in my family. I knew a lot of friends who were firefighters. They were always telling me how great the job was. It wasn’t like any other job,” Burke said. “I was so excited when I got the call.”

Burke joined New York’s Bravest in 1997, starting out in Washington Heights’ Engine 93 and Engine 325 in Woodside, until he found himself an easier commute—to Ladder 137 on Beach 116th Street. Not every firefighter opts to work in the neighborhood they live but for Burke, it was a perfect fit. “A lot of firefighters say it’s too close to home, or they want to be somewhere that’s very busy. For me, it just felt right. To be able to help people in my own hometown was a great perk,” he said. At times, it made assignments personal. “There were times I had to respond to calls involving people I was close to which was hard at times, but I wouldn’t have changed a thing," he said.

It wasn’t long into the job that Burke realized it was so much more than putting out fires. “I was only on the job a couple of weeks when we got this call for a water leak. We entered the apartment to find a 12-year-old boy taking care of two younger siblings. He was so upset because he knew he had gotten his mother in trouble. This would normally require a call to social services,” Burke said. “But this seemed different. The apartment was immaculate, nice family photos on the wall, the kids looked well taken care of. We called his mother who was at work and told her she needed to come home right away. While we waited, my guys started to calm this poor boy down. One guy started finishing the dishes, another started folding the clothes. The mom was doing the best she could by herself. She was overwhelmed working two jobs. We told her she needed somebody there each day and we would be coming back to check that there was. It was that call that made me realize that this job was special.”

From the small things that would turn out to be big things, to big things that would change lives forever, Burke saw it all in his 25 years. Burke’s career coincided with some of some of Rockaway’s biggest, and most tragic moments. On September 11, 2001, Burke was on duty. But from a distance, he watched as 343 of his FDNY brothers and several other Rockaway neighbors were killed. “We never got the call to go to the scene. We watched the towers burning from the roof of the firehouse. We were listening to the department radio, and I’ll never forget when the towers came down, there was just complete radio silence. We knew at that moment that we had lost hundreds of firefighters. I’ll never forget that hopeless feeling,” he said. Burke was among many that tried to turn that hopelessness into help, going down to Ground Zero whenever he could. “I volunteered to be on the task force that detailed me to Ground Zero for 30 days. This tragic event definitely changed my life and career. Here we are 20 years later, and we are still burying firefighters made sick by the toxins down there.”

Just two months later, Burke was working on a day that felt like a 9/11 repeat. “I was working the day Flight 587 came down. We were the first unit on the scene. I always call it the longest day of my career. The wounds were still fresh from 9/11. We weren’t sure if we were once again under attack,” he recalled. At first, the task ahead was so extreme, Burke and his crew didn’t realize the extent of it. “There was so much fire and smoke banked down that we didn’t realize at first that there were bodies everywhere. When the smoke started to lift, we started to see all the bodies. Neighbors handed us sheets. We tried covering all the dead, but the heat was so crazy that the sheets just instantly lit up. We worked nonstop for hours ‘til my back just gave out,” he said. It was a day that put Burke in the hospital and left the FDNY and his family worried sick. “Out of 13 firefighters who went to the hospital, for whatever reason they took me to St. John’s while the other 12 went to Peninsula. They thought I was missing. Hours later, a cop walks past my bed, and says, ‘Are you John Burke?’ I said yes and he starts laughing. He said, “Man, they are looking for you!’ It was such a tough and long day.”

Eleven years later, another tragedy would hit Rockaway—Hurricane Sandy. Burke wasn’t working that night, but he calls the aftermath “the hardest months of my career.” Sandy presented unique challenges. “We were stationed in a firehouse without heat or electricity. We were going to dozens of gas leaks a tour for weeks. It was a hard time for the whole town. For many people who had lost so much, the sight of fire trucks and firefighters entering their homes was like the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Burke said. “So many would just start crying. That’s where working in my hometown helped because I would just be hugging strangers and telling them, ‘I live here too, this is my home. We will get through this together.’ I was happy to have such a big part in the rebuild.”

After 25 years with the FDNY, Burke decided the time was right to retire. “I wanted my wife and I to start traveling more. I was also a member of the FDNY Ceremonial Unit, and I was just at too many funerals. Tomorrow is never promised,” he said. “Time is precious, and I want to start using all of mine.”

How will he spend that time? At some point, Burke may move down south, but not anytime soon. “I’m going to enjoy my first Rockaway summer as a retired guy,” he said. But the music will play on. Wine With Sue already has a summer schedule jam-packed with gigs around Rockaway.

On Saturday, April 30, Burke worked his last tour with Ladder 137 and the FDNY. “My last tour was great. So many guys I’ve worked with over the years came by to wish me luck. It was a great night down memory lane,” he said. And then the party began. “The following day, we celebrated at Roger’s Pub with dozens of friends and family.” After 25 years on the job, Burke says it is his fellow firefighters he’ll miss most. “The guys I worked with, the kitchen table where we laughed and busted each other’s chops all day and night,” Burke said. “I always walked into work with a smile on my face. Not everyone gets that lucky.”

 By Katie McFadden

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