The morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, New York City Fire Lieutenant Serge Burack had just dropped his kids off at school and was in the middle of a 72-hour break from his work with Engine 234 in Brooklyn when the first plane hit the Twin Towers. That afternoon, Lt. Burack was at Ground Zero, working alongside the rest of the FDNY to sift through the rubble.
Lt. Burack says the first sense he remembers that day was the smell of the site. Then, he says “I remember it specifically Friday night, three days after 9/11. After working a day in the firehouse, a bunch of us went down to the site at 6 o’clock and worked overnight until the following morning working our way up the pile. It was the day when President Bush gave the “Hear Me Now” speech. We didn’t realize how high we had worked our way up the pile, but then we looked around. There were holes in all the neighboring buildings, and we were up about 5 to 8 stories high on a pile of rubble.”
Lt. Burack and the FDNY had their work cut out for them. The cleanup went on for close to nine months, with the last beam being removed in May of 2002 during Memorial Day Weekend. During that whole time, the firefighters of New York City were going between the firehouses, Ground Zero, line-of-duty funerals, and training probationary firefighters to fill the firehouses again, all while trying to have a stable home life. “Funerals started in October. As we started recovering firefighters, we started line-of-duty funerals. It peaked around New Year’s and continued to January, February, and March,” says Lt. Burack, “It was unfathomable to lose as many people as we did.”
Lt. Burack also lost his next-door neighbor, whose office the first plane hit. No piece of his body was recovered until the spring of 2002. Out of the almost 2,700 people who were killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center, over 1,000 were never recovered or identified.
On September 11, 2001, 343 firefighters, 37 Port Authority police officers, 23 NYPD, and several federal agents lost their lives for a total of 405 first responders. 20 years later, that number has more than doubled from the lasting health effects from 9/11, including cancer and other illnesses. Lt. Burack himself has active nodules in his lungs from the debris and asbestos he inhaled following the attacks.
One thing that amazed Lt. Burack following the attacks was the way that New Yorkers and the country came together. “People were holding the doors open, no one was honking their horns at each other – people couldn’t do enough for each other,” he says, “I remember that sense of community.”
Today, Lt. Burack is retired and serves on the board of the Burn Foundation of America, continuing to help firefighters, burn victims, and their families across the US. To the men and women he worked alongside during 9/11 and its aftermath, he says he is proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with them. He also wants to remind everyone not only to remember the events and victims of 9/11, but also to remember to live each day to the fullest and not take any day for granted.
From the bottom of our hearts, all of us at the Burn Foundation of America would like to sincerely thank Lieutenant Burack for his service during and following 9/11, and we are incredibly honored to have him on our board today. Thank you for all that you have done for not only your local community, but this whole country.