This is a piece I originally wrote for the St. Paul Pioneer Press back in 2006.
I reprint it here every Sept. 11 to remember Ed Beyea, and everyone who was there on Sept. 11, 2001.
Why We’re Firefighters
By Mark Yost
Shortly after I joined the Lake Elmo (Minn.) Fire Department, Chief Greg Malmquist
asked me if I’d think about writing a piece for the local paper about my
“You’re a writer,” he said. “Maybe you can help us with
It’s been a year and I’ve been through Firefighter I and II and Hazardous
Materials Operations, and took the extra step of getting my EMT
certification (most volunteer fire departments require only First
Responder). After all that, I was still struggling with what to write. Then
on June 20, a letter to the editor in The Wall Street Journal caught my
It was written by Michael Burke of the Bronx. His brother, FDNY Capt. Billy
Burke of Engine Co. 21, was inside Tower 1 of the World Trade Center when it
came crashing down on Sept. 11, 2001. Why was Billy Burke there, even though
the order to evacuate had been given and most who weren’t trapped on the top
floors had already escaped? Because he refused to leave the side of Ed
Beyea, a quadriplegic trapped on the 27th floor. I grew up with Ed Beyea in
New York and know all too well how he died that morning.
Ed was paralyzed in a swimming pool accident three years after he graduated
from high school in 1978. He eventually moved into an assisted living
apartment complex on Roosevelt Island, which sits in the East River between
Manhattan and Queens. Never one to sit around and let life pass him by, Ed
became proficient enough with his oral joystick to land a data-entry job at
Empire Blue Cross and Blue Shield in the World Trade Center.
The trip from Roosevelt Island to midtown Manhattan, then to the Financial District, was
taxing enough for regular commuters; it was doubly so for a guy in an
electric wheelchair. But one of Ed’s co-workers, Abe Zelmanowitz,
volunteered to help him get to and from work each day. It was a commitment
that he would not abandon, even under the most dire circumstances.
Shortly after the second plane hit Tower 1, workers were told to evacuate.
This was obviously a problem for Ed, who couldn’t get down the stairwell
easily. It wasn’t long before Ed had difficulty breathing.
Abe could have easily left Ed there and made it out alone, but he refused to leave Ed
behind. They were soon joined by Billy Burke, who also refused to abandon
Ed. All three were killed – together – when Tower 1 collapsed. (Their
stories can be read in the New York Times’ Portraits of Grief and at
memorial sites on the Internet.)
The inscription on the Marine Corps’ Iwo Jima Memorial reads, “Uncommon
valor was a common virtue.” I think the same can be said of Sept. 11 in general, and of Billy Burke and Abe Zelmanowitz specifically.
Reading Michael Burke’s letter and remembering the details of Ed’s tragic
death crystallized for me why I’m a firefighter. I think I speak for a lot
of firefighters when I say that I do it mostly because it’s a commitment to
something more important than myself. Yes, we all love the camaraderie and
the trucks and the thrill of the call (90 percent of which turn out to be
routine). But it goes deeper than that.
We don’t talk about it much, but we all know that one day we might be asked
to do for our neighbors what Billy Burke and Abe did for Ed. We hope that if
that time comes, we’ll have the courage to answer the call. The fact that
we’re willing to even try is what makes us respect and care for each other.
This selfless commitment is certainly what motivated Billy Burke and Abe.
Thanks to them, Ed didn’t die alone. As terrible as that scene was, I’m sure
Ed was comforted by their presence.
As firefighters, we hope we give similar hope and comfort to the victims we
treat in the communities we serve. Working in Lake Elmo and other small
town and cities across the country, we certainly don’t expect to be part of
a mass-casualty incident like Sept. 11. And even if we never do get “the
call,” we know that in our own small way we make a difference in peoples’
lives every day.
We’re often a calm voice, a reassuring pat on the hand, welcome relief in
their hour of need. And while these victims may not be at the center of the
most devastating terrorist attack in history, the world they know and love
is often crumbling around them. In many ways, it’s just as tragic and
devastating for them as it was for Ed Beyea.
I’m not sure if this is the piece that Chief Malmquist was looking for, but
I now know that this is why we’re firefighters.