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Thursday, September 11, 2014

Remembering 9/11: Out of the Rubble, Captain Brenda Berkman


In Honor of September 11, We Commemorate the hard work and achievements of Captain Brenda Berkman

In 1977 after an eleven year hiring freeze, The New York Fire Department was required by law to hire women firefighters for the first time due to the earlier passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  But instead, the fire department issued a bogus physical test that no woman could pass. Brenda Berkman was a law student and marathon runner at the time who sued the fire department on the grounds of gender discrimination. She was amongst the first class of women to be hired by the New York City Fire Department in 1982.  In those early years, 42 women firefighters stood alongside of  Berkman. However, the numbers dropped by 9/11. There were only 25 female firefighters out of the  11,000 or so firefighters in the FDNY.

Berkman also started the United Women Firefighters an organization for women within the New York City Fire Department, named a White House fellow in 1996 and was Director of Women First Responders of 9/11.

Amongst her many awards and achievements, she has obtained the Susan B. Anthony Award from the National Organization for Women in 1984, the Women of Courage Award from the National Organization for Women in 2002. For her support of labor history and labor archives, she was honored by the New York Labor History Association in 2005.

On that eerie day of September 11th 2001, Captain Brenda Berkman found herself amongst the rubble which was piled seven stories high, attempting to locate survivors. Though the voices of people could no longer be heard, she did what she knew to do- risk her life while hoping that she could save others :

Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge toward lower Manhattan, Lt. Brenda Berkman edged a borrowed police van through a solid wall of people covered in gray ash and walking in the opposite direction.
The veteran New York City firefighter had taken Sept. 11 off -- election day -- to work as a volunteer for a political candidate. But when she heard that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center, she raced the 15 minutes from her Brooklyn home toward her old Brooklyn firehouse and borrowed gear from a buddy whose crew already had been dispatched to ground zero.
"When I got there, you didn't hear any people," Berkman said. "You heard car alarms and explosions. There was a lot of noise, but you didn't hear people."
For the next two months, she lived and breathed disaster. She worked numbing shifts at ground zero, then retreated, exhausted, to her Ladder Co. 12 firehouse in the Chelsea area of Manhattan to grab a meal or a few hours' rest, counsel other firefighters, plan funerals and try to clear her lungs of the noxious smoke. Every firefighter she knew had developed "the cough."
Of the 343 firefighters who died at ground zero, Berkman knew 250. Some days there were 10 memorial services. It grieved her that she couldn't get to every one. She lost five people from her Chelsea firehouse and six others from her old station in Brooklyn.

--But it hurts Berkman that women rescuers -- who stood shoulder to shoulder with the men at ground zero -- have been so roundly ignored by the media that the term fireman has returned to vogue.-- "I don't think it's patriotic to show just one group of people on the job," said Berkman --
Berkman said she fears that ignoring the sacrifices of female disaster workers will revive prejudices that women can't do the very work to which she has devoted her adult life...

None of this is meant to, in any way, take away from the heroism of the men who were down there. It's simply stating the fact: There were women serving right alongside the men in exactly the same roles putting their lives on the line exactly the same way.

None of the women down there were looking for their 15 minutes of fame or any of that nonsense, it wasn't like Dancing with the Stars. I wasn't so interested in my personal story, I was interested in the story of women at this paradigm-changing event in world history where things are not going to be like they were [before]. Women were part of all of that. And we simply want to have it recognized.

[These women] were patriots. They were self sacrificing, and they were brave, and they were hard-working, and they were taking risks, and they were serving their community. I mean, how inspiring is that? Why wouldn't you want to tell that story?” said Berkman.