Cultural Trends/Popular Culture

Firefighter Berkman Is Two Kinds of a Hero

Monday, December 31, 2001

A leader for the 25 women firefighters among 11,500 men, Lt. Brenda Berkman was one of the first on the scene on Sept. 11. In the 1980s, she was another kind of hero. She sued and won the right for her and other women to work as firefighters.

Rebuilding New York: Women at Ground Zero

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--Lieutenant Brenda Berkman was off duty when the first plane hit the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. She threw on her uniform and ran to the nearest firehouse. As a highly visible female officer in the New York City Fire Department, Berkman went without a question.

Berkman has long been a different kind of hero for a type of bravery that is often unsung and forgotten: She sued for the right to have the job she loves and won in 1982 a sex-discrimination lawsuit that opened the way for the hiring of women by the fire department. She remains a strong advocate for women and is a high profile figure in both the city and national organization for women firefighters. Her dedication to the fire department is so complete that she and her partner Pamela live in Brooklyn, close to the fire department's headquarters. Today, the department still resists hiring women and the city has only 25 women firefighters among more than 11,500 male firefighters.

"I got to the site after the second collapse. The scene was beyond belief: choking air, burning cars and buses, twisted metal," Berkman said. "It was all paper and dust. No big pieces of concrete, like you might expect. It wasn't like Oklahoma City, where the bomb blew off one side of the building and you could see the floors. Everything was pulverized."

Berkman took a small group of firefighters to search for her battalion from lower Manhattan, the Number 12 Ladder Company. Her greatest fear had been realized--three members of her company were missing. They had perished, but she could not accept that.

'They Must Be Somewhere'

"I thought: We can find them. Thousands of people were missing and they must be somewhere. We'll start now and get them to the hospital, and that will be that," she said. Firefighters usually organize a search in three stages: first, the surface; then, voids in the area; and finally, the entire affected area. In this case, it was not that simple. The site resembled a war zone more than a four-alarm fire, with smoking debris, burning metal and a thick haze of corrupted air. "We knew that the clock was ticking. I did one surface sweep and found a firefighter's jacket. And that's all I found," she said.

Lt. Brenda Berkman

Berkman, the founder and president of United Women Firefighters organization in New York, began her career in the fire service in 1982. She has also led the national organization of women firefighters, Women in the Fire Service, Inc., serving both as a trustee and as president of the board.

In 1996 her talents took her to Washington, D.C., to serve as a White House Fellow in the Office of the Secretary of Labor, the first and only professional firefighter to be accorded the honor. She is a graduate of St. Olaf’s College in Northfield, Minn. She received a master’s degree in American history at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind. She headed back East and earned a law degree from New York University and a master’s degree in fire protection management from the City University of New York.

Berkman is tall and strong. Her hair is cropped short and her deep-set eyes are troubled when she speaks about the disaster. She climbed fire ladders that had been lashed to the piles of rubble and walked across the debris seven stories high. As she moved the ash and rubble, her hands bled, but the emotional turmoil was far greater than the physical duress.

Berkman and the other firefighters worked 48 hours straight searching for bodies. They rested briefly and began the tough duty of attending wakes and funerals and visiting the grieving families.

The World Trade Center death toll of nearly 3,000 included 343 firefighters, all of them men. Among the dead were several of the department's senior officers and it's chaplain.


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