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.

Page 2 of 2

"Women were and are at Ground Zero. They have been there since the first minutes of the attack. Half of the women in the New York City Fire Department put themselves in harm's way that first day and for many days thereafter. Fortunately, none was killed."

Berkman said she saw many more women at Ground Zero than usual in her job. The number of female firefighters remains at 25, despite Berkman's two decades of effort. Chicago and Los Angeles have five times the number of women firefighters.

She said that the firefighters and rescue workers continue to put themselves at risk.

"It's still not a friendly site. It's a site where guys have broken their legs, where people have cut themselves open on the metal, where you are breathing in dust and smoke. It's obviously not beneficial. It isn't healthy down there," she said.

Distraught Firefighters Attended Two, Three Funerals a Week

Only about 75 bodies have been recovered and the hunt for others continues. During the first week of November, almost on the two-month anniversary of the attack, firefighters clashed with police, injuring five of them. The reason: Giuliani had announced the reduction of rescue workers searching for bodies; firefighters were furious; the mayor later relented.

It has been a trying few months for the department and many firefighters like Berkman have been attending more than two or three funerals a week. Bodies still are being recovered.

The scene is slowly getting better. The fires have been put out and about half of the rubble has been removed. Down along Fulton Street and Broadway banners still hang from Trinity Church: They give thanks for the noble efforts of firefighters who perished while trying to rescue others.

She worked hard for her position and now at a time when New York City is rallying around firefighters with a fervor few have ever seen, Berkman is grateful. “I've had a tremendous outpouring of support from friends and family, the other women firefighters, the guys at the firehouse,” said Berkman, recalling that people were lined up on the streets, screaming out words of love and support to the firefighters as they raced down to the site.People may have been surprised at the numbers of women who stormed Ground Zero in their rush to protect survivors and locate victims, Berkman said. The predominant image of rescue workers remain male even though hundreds of female Red Cross volunteers, police officers and emergency technicians are at the scene every day.

Even as they grieve, many of the city's firefighters must now return to their ordinary posts--in a city that also experienced a major plane crash and an intense blaze at a beloved cathedral.

"These are circumstances the department could have never anticipated, even in the worst case scenarios," Berkman said. "We're going to get through this."

Freelance writer Cynthia Cooper contributed to this article.

Maya Dollarhide is a freelance writer in Brooklyn. She is a graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Other articles in the "Rebuilding New York: Women at Ground Zero" series:

Chaplain Comforts Rescuers, Struggles for Answers (11/19/01):

Women at Ground Zero: Rescuers, Rebuilders (10/14/01):

Ironworker George Cleared Debris With Her Hands (10/22/01):

Red Cross Volunteer Listened to Grief, Rage (10/29/01):

Using E-mail List, Shulock Finds 3000 Volunteers (11/5/01):

EMS Worker Now Shuns Reality TV Disaster Series (11/12/01):


Would you like to Comment but not sure how? Visit our help page at

Would you like to Send Along a Link of This Story?

For more information:

National Women's History Project
"Brenda Berkman, New York City Firefighter":

Speech by Brenda Berkman at the National Women's Law Center:

Women in the Fire Service, Inc.:


0 COMMENTS | Login or Sign Up to post comments


Our History

Chaplain Comforts Rescuers, Struggles for Answers

Our History

Women at Ground Zero: Rescuers, Rebuilders

Our History

Ironworker George Cleared Debris With Her Hands

Our History

Red Cross Volunteer Listened to Grief, Rage

Our History

Using E-mail List, Shulock Finds 3,000 Volunteers

Our History

EMS Worker Now Shuns Reality TV Disaster Series

The Nation

New York's Female Leaders Express Sorrow, Hope