It's been five years since my brother Matthew Burke was murdered when terrorists flew an airplane into the north tower of the World Trade Center, trapping him and his colleagues above the burning crash line and dooming them to a horrible death.
Matt was an equity trader for Cantor Fitzgerald, and, at 28 years old, a guy who was only just starting out his adult life. And that's what galls me. Matt was cheated out of his future: marriage, children, a successful career and good times with friends and family. And for what? For going to work? Infuriating.
Although his unexpected violent end at the hands of cowardly murderers put me through levels of pain I didn't know existed, I don't feel sorry for myself (well, perhaps for my mom and dad for having outlived a son). I really feel sorry for him, for Matt. Indeed, his being wiped from the planet without having had the chance to enjoy what was his birthright is what really pisses me off. It should make everyone else angry too — and not just those of us who lost friends and relatives. These innocent men and women were merely trying to create a better life for themselves and their families — and were not fair game because they were “little Eichmans,” as one idiot college professor described them.
Obviously, I can't speak for the thousands of others who lost loved ones in that horrific crime, but I have a suspicion they've gone through the same emotional mayhem. At first, there is just shock that something like this could happen. Then there is hope that they survived. And then hope fades to denial. As reality comes barging in, eventually the disbelief turns into the agony of acceptance. There are all kinds of variations and permutations, as anyone who has lost someone knows. It never really goes away, rather you slowly inch closer to the life you had before.
What's strange is that, after five years, it's still hard to describe how I feel. There is still such a wide range of emotions. I'm sad for his lost time on earth, enraged at his killers for ripping our life apart, frustrated with failed attempts to catch the head terrorist and, most importantly, deeply lonely for Matt's company. Other days I just feel detached, void of any emotion, like I'm standing outside myself. It's weird.
A Beautiful Morning
But I remember the day — the weather — perfectly. I couldn't forget if I tried. The sky was as blue and as clear as I had ever seen it. The sun was shining brightly and the temperature was cool, not humid. It was a beautiful late-summer day, very similar to the day Matt was brought into this world my parents would later tell me. And, yet, on that day, I watched the carnage unfold from the southeast corner of Liberty Street and Broadway, just one block east of the south tower (and a few blocks north of the New York Stock Exchange). I was making my way towards the north tower in hopes of finding him when suddenly the south tower collapsed. Fortunately, I was able to run far enough away and only suffered bloodshot eyes and mouthfuls of smoke, soot and pulverized concrete. Matt, being on the 104th floor of the north tower, never made it out. We found out later that he and other Cantor traders were huddled in a conference room desperate for air and praying for a rescue; they found that they were trapped, the stairwells obstructed by fire, smoke and debris — the door to the roof was locked.
And so my family (and scores of others) have to live with images such as that, our loved ones gasping for oxygen amid intense heat and smoke. I can only hope that Matt and the rest of the Cantor staffers succumbed to the smoke — which is awful enough — before the building collapsed. Unfortunately, I sometimes conclude that the more likely scenario is that they suffered unspeakable, painful deaths. Imagine the fear they must have experienced in the final moments.
Like thousands of others in lower Manhattan, I'll never forget the sight, sounds and chaos of that awful day — which started out perfectly. I arrived at my office on Wall Street a little after 7 a.m. to monitor the futures market as usual (I was a reporter for TheStreet.com). In between writing updates on how the market would open, I was dialing portfolio managers for interviews. Most days, I'd call over to the trading desk at Cantor to chat with my brother about the Mets or, say, our plans for the weekend. That was really the only time of the day he could talk without hanging up in mid-sentence. So I usually took advantage of it. Oddly enough, I didn't have time to call him that morning. Little did I know I would never talk to him again.
After the first plane slammed into the north tower and sent a terrifying blast reverberating through the financial district, I knew something bad had happened. But just how bad? After learning of the crash, I dialed Matt's number, 938-3902, but nobody picked up the phone on the trading desk. I started to get a very sick feeling in my stomach. Then I called my father and told him what happened, urging him to find a TV.
After the second plane hit, I made a few more frantic phone calls and set out toward the buildings. Had I reached the concourse in the World Trade Center, I may not have been able to outrun the collapse. In fact, for a 15-minute period, I was totally engulfed in a cloud of smoke and debris; at one point, I thought I was going to die. The air was pitch black and caked with soot. I could hear pieces of metal and glass hitting parked cars as people screamed and gagged. Luckily, after feeling my way down Liberty Street in the darkness, I saw a faint light that turned out to be the hazard lights on a city bus. I crawled into the bus and wiped my face so I could see. My thoughts returned to my brother's whereabouts as soon as I came to my senses.
Minutes later the second tower collapsed — the one with my brother in it — sending me fleeing yet again. The sound was terrifying. Dazed and confused, I walked uptown to my sister Annmarie's apartment. We spent the rest of the day — the longest day of our lives — searching hospitals on the east side of Manhattan. Rumors had been circulating that the Cantor guys were alive and well and had convened at a nearby pub. That turned out to be grossly inaccurate. Then my father and brother Paul learned that there was a Matthew Burke in a hospital on the Upper West Side. It turned out to be a newborn baby. (Imagine our joy, and then heartache.)
The search ended shortly after 1 a.m., when we realized that most of the missing people were from Cantor. Nobody had heard from Matt and it was starting to add up that they never got out. We filed a missing persons report and prayed for good news. The next morning I realized that he was probably killed, but we held out hope for him to be found alive in the rubble for a few weeks. We held a memorial service on Sept. 29 where I delivered his eulogy.
It wasn't until we found his Cantor ID card months later that it really set in that he wasn't coming home. A cop from our neighborhood, who had been searching for remains in Staten Island, where the rubble was transported, found it twisted and melted but otherwise intact. It somehow survived the fire and the collapse, yet he did not. The only remains that were ever found were tiny bone fragments from his hip and ribs, identified as his by DNA tests. Nearly three years after it happened, we buried the remains in a tiny casket about the size of a jewelry box. I sobbed uncontrollably for the first time in many months.
It occurred to me recently that I had stopped talking about what transpired that day and couldn't tell you when that started or why. (My own editor didn't know I lost a brother until we began planning this issue.) Maybe that is just a part of the grieving process or perhaps it hurts too much, or I'm just too tired of talking about it. When the subject of 9/11 comes up in conversation, anxiety sets in. And, people tend to feel awkward and say the wrong thing. Not because they're unsympathetic, rather they can't fully grasp my experience.
But there's no escaping this major event of terrorism, one that changed the world that we live in. Everywhere you go, Islamic radicals are staring you in the face — on the Internet, in the newspapers, on television, hell, it's even in the theaters. (As if I really want to relive that day again.) It was the biggest terrorist event on our shores in history, so there's endless media coverage.
So how do I feel five years later? I'm still angry. It is too difficult to let go. Everything has changed. The sense of loss is immeasurable. But maybe we shouldn't stop hurting. Maybe that's the point. You couldn't replace a big brother like Matt. He was one of a kind. In fact, each victim that was killed on 9/11 is unique. Their families' lives will always be chained to that event. Perhaps by honoring them with a beautiful memorial — one that tells the story of 9/11 and honors the victims as heroes rather than casting blame on our country, as some misguided individuals would have it — and never resting in our efforts to thwart future attacks, we can preserve their legacy.
The only good thing that has come from this for me is that I realize what is important in life: the people you love. Cherish them because you don't know when they can be taken from you. We must fight through the pain and the tears and ensure that our fallen brothers and sisters are remembered. And never, never forget.