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.


"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):

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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.: