Huffpost Women

Brenda Berkman, Former New York City Fire Department Captain, Talks Women At Ground Zero

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Captain Brenda Berkman has been a crusader for women in the emergency services since she challenged the barriers to women entering the New York City Fire Department in a successful law suit in the late 70s, a fight chronicled in the 2006 PBS documentary 'Taking the Heat.'

Berkman not only won women a fair path of entry into the department, but she went on to become one of the highest ranking women in the NYFD over the course of her 25 year career. She worked at Ground Zero from the morning of September 11, 2001 until the site closed months later.

Retired from the department since 2006, she is the founder of the “United Women Firefighters” organization in New York City and Director of Women First Responders of 9/11, a group formed to publicize the stories of women who served at Ground Zero.

With the 10th anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center approaching, Huffington Post Women caught up with Berkman to talk about the part women played in the rescue effort at Ground Zero on and after September 11th and how their role has been covered in the media.

What don't people know about what happened at Ground Zero?

Even though people from around the world were very caring and expressing lots of sympathy and concern about what was going on [in] New York, it was very difficult to explain to people [elsewhere] the magnitude of what happened here.

I'm not sure that a lot of people watching on television understood how incredibly dangerous it was down there for months afterwards but especially in the first several weeks. Even though no more buildings fell down after 5:20 in the afternoon on September 11th (everybody forgets there was a third building that fell down in the late afternoon, 7 World Trade Center), for really days, maybe weeks afterwards, there were surrounding skyscrapers which the building engineers were very concerned might also fall down because they had been compromised by the collapse of these three gigantic buildings and the fires and everything else. It was an incredibly dangerous fight, and you didn't have to be there just on 9/11 to be terribly endangered by working down there.

How many women belonged to the New York City Fire Department on 9/11?

There was a very small number. [There were] 11,000 or so [firefighters in the FDNY], and there were approximately 25 [female] firefighters. Our numbers were very tiny. When I won my lawsuit and I brought women into the NYFD in 1982, there were 42 of us. Now there are 29.

What role did women play at Ground Zero?

Basically all of the women [in the Fire Department] ended up there at one point or another while the recovery was going on. And [there were female] police and EMTs. There were other women there not only from the military but also from various law enforcements agencies, the FBI.

Three women rescue workers were killed on 9/11: Moira Smith, NYPD officer, Kathy Mazza, a Port Authority Police Capt., and Yamel Merino, an EMT. Besides those three who were killed, there were countless women almost killed, severely injured. And then there were the women who were working who somehow managed to escape serious injury and were able to continue doing their assignments down there.

Was the work that women were doing in any way different from the work men were doing?

No, no. We were doing exactly the same things. I was operating as a New York City fire officer from the time I got there on 9/11 to the time that the site closed. I was doing my job the way I was doing my job before 9/11, alongside of all my male peers. We didn't have any restrictions on our service, like even now some of the women in the military have. We did everything, and so there was nothing different between what we were doing and what the men were doing.

What was your first indication that the participation of women in the rescue effort was not being represented in the media?

Initially I did not even read a newspaper or watch television because I was in the firehouse [for] what seemed like around the clock. When I was home I was sleeping or I was answering telephone calls. It was all-consuming in those early weeks, and then I really wasn't paying very much attention at all to the media.

Then I started getting phone calls from women firefighters around the country and emails from them saying, "What is going on [in] New York? There's absolutely no indication that there were any women firefighters and also even women cops and EMTs," It seemed like there wasn't very much being said about the role of women in rescue relief. My friends from around the country started pointing it out to me.

How did you feel personally when you thought women were receiving less media coverage?

Well, besides surprised, I think it's hard for any person who excels in something that is being recognized in some ways to be ignored in other ways.

If women composed such a small percentage of the department at the time, why is it important to spotlight their role specifically at Ground Zero?

It took me awhile to realize while I was in college in the 1970's that there were important women in history, we just didn't learn about them [in elementary school].

Women in fact were contributing at the Trade Center, and I knew they were because I was there, I was seeing other women there, I talked to other women who [went] through all kinds of different experiences on 9/11 on the days that we were down there. They were risking their lives and their health, right alongside their male co-workers, and I simply couldn't understand why that story wasn't being told.

We were saying that one of the motivations for going to Afghanistan was to free the Afghan women from the oppression of the Taliban, which kept them behind the veil, locked in their homes, with no opportunities for economic security or freedom of any sort it seemed. And in our own country, where we have these inspirational women doing these important jobs, [they are] not being put out there as something to be proud of. And I think this is something that we should be very proud of in our country.

How do you respond to criticism that your focus on female responders is too narrow and that we should honor everyone who worked at Ground Zero on 9/11?

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?

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