- Show Notes
This week’s Q&A (with Lisa Monaco) starts at 2:07, the interview starts at 17:35, and the button starts at 1:18:45.
On this episode of Stay Tuned, “Russian Asset & The 1st Female Firefighter,” Lisa Monaco, who served as Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism in the Obama Administration, joins host Preet Bharara to help answer some of your questions on:
— Reports of an extracted Russian Spy who allegedly provided critical information about the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 American election
— The sudden departure of John Bolton as President Trump’s national security adviser
— President Trump’s cancelled negotiations with the Taliban at Camp David
On this 18th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, retired Captain Brenda Berkman of the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) joins Preet for a conversation about her journey as the City’s pioneering female firefighter and her historic 1982 class action lawsuit that forced the FDNY to accept women into its ranks.
Bonus clips from the interview are available for members of the CAFE Insider community.
Read along to this week’s episode with the episode transcript.
Sign up to receive free references and supplemental materials for Stay Tuned episodes, a weekly newsletter, and updates from Preet.
As always, tweet your questions to @PreetBharara with hashtag #askpreet, email us at [email protected], or call 699-247-7338 to leave a voicemail.
REFERENCES & SUPPLEMENTAL MATERIALS
RUSSIAN SPY EXTRACTION
- “C.I.A. Informant Extracted From Russia Had Sent Secrets to U.S. for Decades,” New York Times, 9/9/19
- “Trump skeptical of using foreign spies to collect intel on hostile countries, sources say,” CNN, 9/10/19
JOHN BOLTON’S OUSTER
- “John Bolton’s turbulent tenure comes to a Trumpian end,” Washington Post, 9/10/19
- “At Camp David, Trump Sought The Mantle Of History. But Afghanistan Is Different,” National Public Radio, 9/10/19
- “How Trump’s Plan to Secretly Meet With the Taliban Came Together, and Fell Apart,” New York Times, 9/8/19
- Berkman v. City of New York, 536 F. Supp. 177 (E.D.N.Y. 1982), Justia
- Berkman v. City of New York, 580 F. Supp. 226 (E.D.N.Y. 1983), Justia
- “Women Win Ruling on Fire Dept. Test,” New York Times, 3/6/82
- “2 Women Lose Firefighter Jobs After Probation,” New York Times, 9/22/83
- “Sisters in the Brotherhoods,” Talking History, 2012
- “FDNY Graduation Raises Number of Female Firefighters to Historic Level,” Firefighter Nation, 4/20/18
- “On 9/11, Women Were Heroes Too,” NYU, 9/9/16
- The Monumental Women Campaign
Preet Bharara: From CAFE, welcome to Stay Tuned. I’m Preet Bharara.
Brenda Berkman: So I’m a student of history and I realized that people had done really hard things to give me the opportunities that I had as white woman growing up in the 1950s even though they were limited and continued to be limited for women, okay? But I realized that people had suffered a lot for other groups as well. This was not going to be something that just changed overnight.
Preet Bharara: That’s Brenda Berkman who served in the fire department of the city of New York for 25 years. As a 29-year-old, she was the only named plaintiff in historic class-action lawsuit that forced the city to allow women into the FDNY for the first time. Brenda Berkman tells me a story of justice and personal perseverance, how she went from being the student at the NYU School of Law to becoming one of the first 40 women firefighters in the city’s history. She also talks about how after the first plane hit the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11th she rushed to the nearest firehouse and joined the ranks of New York’s heroic first responders. But first let’s get to your questions. That’s coming up, stay tuned.
Jody: Hi, Preet. Jody in Denver. I just read the article out of The Times about the informant, longtime informant that they extracted out of Russia somewhere safe here in the US, I assume. Is anybody else concerned or is it just me that Trump would actually give the location of this informant that’s helped us all these years. What do you think? I love your show. Thanks, bye.
Preet Bharara: Thanks, Jody in Denver for that great question which is in a lot of people’s mind. By the way, since you’re in Denver, you should think about coming to the live show on October 24th with Shannon Watts, we’ve gotten a lot of questions on some of the craziness happening with respect to national security over the last number of days. Instead of answering those questions myself, I’m going to do one better. I have invited into the studio my dear friend and Stay Tuned regular Lisa Monaco who served in the Obama White House as you may recall, as assistant to the president for Homeland Security and counter terrorism. So I’m going to let Lisa it’s our some of these difficult questions that people have been asking and that I’ve been asking myself. Lisa, thanks for being my lifeline.
Lisa Monaco: Great to be here Preet.
Preet Bharara: Last minute, we called you and said come on in, and educate us on some of these things, and help us understand how bonkers they are, or maybe they’re not. So with respect to Jody’s question all this reporting about the exfiltration, which is the term, of an American asset in Russia because of concerns about that asset’s safety because in part of a worry that the president might not keep that thing a secret. What do you make of all that?
Lisa Monaco: Well, first I should say I’m just reading the same public reports that you are and that Jody is. She’s right to be concerned because if there is or was such an asset meaning somebody who was working on behalf of the United States government to share secrets and to help the United States national security that would be a really, really important thing for the US government to have for our national security. And the reports that we’re reading today and yesterday frankly are really concerning to me that we’re even reading about.
Lisa Monaco: Because, look, the press is doing their job and they should be doing that but at some point in time somebody who was. It seems trusted with the US National Security secrets decided to disclose those, and that’s a problem. But the concerns expressed by Jody and others that I’ve read are spot on because this person if they exist, and if this reporting is believed to be true, and again, I’m not confirming or denying any of it.
Preet Bharara: But do you find it credible?
Lisa Monaco: Well, two things are true, Preet. One is CIA put out a statement denying it but the reports that I’ve read are sourcing to multiple current officials meaning currently serving Trump administration officials directly involved, I think is the words that were used in these discussions and planning for this supposed extraction. So you weigh those two things and it’s a report that ought to be looked at very carefully.
Preet Bharara: Is this something that is worthy of congressional investigation?
Lisa Monaco: I think so. But a few different levels, right? A, if this is true, this means that somebody who was in a position of trust, disclosed information that was classified and if the other parts of the reporting are true that some of this reason for this extraction was concerned by the intelligence community that this person’s safety was a risk, I certainly think and I suspect the intelligence committees who of course in congress operate with classified information and do a lot of their work I think appropriately. In secret, behind closed doors, you can bet they’re looking into it.
Preet Bharara: Hypothetically, if there were such an extraction would that in your view rise to the level of the intelligence agencies having to give notification to the chairs and vice chairs of the intelligence committees of congress when it happened?
Lisa Monaco: I would think so. As you know because you worked on the hill, the standard here is any significant intelligence activity and a move like this I think would probably qualify.
Preet Bharara: Do you think that notification would have included if true that one of the bases for the extraction was a concern that the president of the United States himself posed a threat of disclosure?
Lisa Monaco: If that was the case, I’m guessing that the intelligence community would have potentially finessed that. I think there might be other ways that the intelligence committee gets that information. I’d be skeptical that it would appear in the formal notification.
Preet Bharara: Right. I’m just wondering also who would be responsible for getting this information out now which we’re concerned about? Is it possible that it’s congress?
Lisa Monaco: That’s a really good point. Again, the sourcing that I have seen says individuals directly involved in the extraction so it’s anybody’s guess, but that tells me that those are folks who have a very good information about this supposed extraction.
Preet Bharara: What do you think about the related reporting which says that Donald Trump really doesn’t like the idea of spying on our adversaries? People have been quoted as saying the president believes we shouldn’t be doing that to each other? That the President believes those people are selling out their country, and so he’s not into human intelligence. On a scale of 1 to 10 how bonkers is that?
Lisa Monaco: It’s beyond bonkers. And it’s beyond bonkers because these are individuals who are putting their lives on the line to help the United States. Now, granted they’re going to have all sorts of motivation. Maybe they don’t believe in the policies of their own country. Maybe they have financial motivation. Maybe they want safety and safe passage and a different life for their family. They can have all sorts of motivations but the point is they are now working for the United States in our national security interests. That’s good for us.
Lisa Monaco: The intelligence community spends an incredible amount of resources and time developing these assets. So this report about this alleged Russian asset who was extracted, people should understand that person was likely decades in the making in terms of developing that source of information that’s incredibly important to the United States National Security. The other thing, Preet about this is this just seems to me in line with the president’s hostility to the intelligence community, right?
Preet Bharara: Right. It’s funny I keep thinking about a totally different context. We both share time and experience as prosecutors too. He also didn’t like cooperating witnesses.
Lisa Monaco: Exactly, right. It’s all of a piece. It’s in the same vein. And you have to kind of ask yourself why? One, I think it betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what the role of… In the case of the intelligence community what the role of an asset is it’s in the United States’ interest, and in the prosecution scenario what the role of a cooperating witness is to help make cases to bring criminals to justice. So with regard to the intelligence community this is all in a long line of hostility to the intelligence community, right?
Lisa Monaco: The president stood up next to Vladimir Putin, questioned on foreign soil, questioned his own intelligence community, and favored Putin’s analysis. He has called the intelligence community all manner of names. He says they’re the deep state when these are career professionals working to protect the United States of America. So it is bonkers, it’s beyond bonkers, but I guess it’s not surprising-
Preet Bharara: You didn’t give me a number, 1 to 10.
Lisa Monaco: No, I’ll use the same scale I’ve used previously. It’s like the old phrase, it goes to 11.
Preet Bharara: This is Spinal Tap with reference.
Lisa Monaco: This is Spinal Tap, exactly.
Preet Bharara: So another thing happened this week. National Security Adviser, John Bolton, depending on who you believe, fired, resigned. So not everyone loved him. A lot of people on the Democratic side didn’t like him. Is this is a good thing that he’s got? Is it a bad thing he’s got? Does Trump deserve credit for getting rid of this guy?
Lisa Monaco: So, one, I think this was the least surprising news this week quite frankly. I mean, the writing had been on the wall for a while. This is a National Security Advisor who was reportedly kept out of major meetings. Forget about being kept out of meetings. These are meetings that the National Security Adviser usually calls and runs so the idea that he wasn’t invited to a major National Security policy mean he was affirmatively kept out of it is again on the bonkers scale, beyond bonkers, well past 10. So this was unsurprisingly been contradicting the president and clearly is not in alignment with the president.
Preet Bharara: Good or bad for the country?
Lisa Monaco: The whole thing is chaotic so that’s bad for the country. I don’t subscribe to the view that Bolton might have been an adult in the room, might have been a moderating influence in the sense that he was not looking to double down with Kim Jong-Un on talks. He didn’t want the Taliban to come to Camp David. I think the whole thing reveals basically the chaos theory of foreign policy so that’s not good for the country. The one thing I do agree with, and this may surprise you, Preet is some of the supporters of the president have said, “Look, the president deserves a National Security Adviser who he trusts and who’s aligned with him.”
Lisa Monaco: I agree with that the president is entitled to an adviser, particularly one who serves in the White House and is supposed to be his closest foreign policy adviser, he’s entitled to somebody who he trusts and is aligned with. What I think what this reflects is there is no National Security policy process ongoing. That has been completely turned upside down and is non-existent, and Bolton seems to have forgotten the number one rule of serving in the White House which is you’re all staff. I served in the White House as you said the president’s Homeland Security and counter terrorism adviser. It’s a little bit like what happens in the Situation Room ought to stay in the Situation Room.
Preet Bharara: Did Omarosa know that?
Lisa Monaco: Clearly not.
Preet Bharara: I don’t think so.
Lisa Monaco: The fact that all of these disputes have been spilling out certainly it’s fun for folks to follow the back-and-forth and who’s up and who’s down, and all the internal warfare. But it’s not good for national security.
Preet Bharara: But do you not believe in the principle that a lot of people are articulating right now which is John Bolton should go on television, and go on the op-ed pages without devoting classified information, but should describe the dysfunction in the White House and how dangerous the president of the United States is. Should he keep his mouth shut or should he speak as some people think it would be a public service?
Lisa Monaco: Well, he’s already spoken and I don’t think we need John Bolton to tell us that there’s chaos in the White House, right? So I subscribe to the quaint notion that you ought to keep your advice to the president to yourself, and you shouldn’t use leaks as a foreign policy tool, because it doesn’t help our national security. What our adversaries, and frankly our allies all see is complete upheaval and not a coherent foreign policy, and not a coherent foreign policy process. That’s not good for America.
Preet Bharara: Apparently the president of the United States planned during the week of the anniversary of 9/11, we’re recording this on the 18th anniversary of 9/11, he planned to invite leaders of the Taliban to Camp David.
Lisa Monaco: The fact that we’re even having this discussion, let alone on such a solemn anniversary as today’s is, is frankly insane. The notion that you would have-
Preet Bharara: Is insane higher than bonkers or below bonkers?
Lisa Monaco: The notion that you would have leaders of the Taliban who literally have blood on their hands for the attack on this country because of course they harbored Al-Qaeda. They have not renounced Al-Qaeda. They have not engaged in a ceasefire. It is insane that we would bring them to Camp David. A seat of the presidency quite frankly much like the White House and frankly give them that propaganda tool. Can you imagine what they would do with that?
Preet Bharara: How so? How do you mean that?
Lisa Monaco: I mean it emboldens them, it legitimizes them. It gives them frankly a photo op as importantly in this instance I imagine would be devastating to the families of those who died on 9/11. So it is definitely beyond bonkers. It’s in the insane category. And I should say, Preet, it’s a lot of a goal to try and bring this conflict 18 years on to a resolution, and to do that you’re going to have to deal with unsavory characters. I get that, but there’s a real difference between doing that and bringing those people to Camp David and setting foot on US soil.
Preet Bharara: Lisa Monaco, thanks for dropping by.
Lisa Monaco: Sure.
Preet Bharara: Don’t be a stranger. We’ll, do this again.
Lisa Monaco: Great to be with you.
Preet Bharara: It gets me off the hook a little bit.
Lisa Monaco: Happy to do that.
Preet Bharara: Okay.
Preet Bharara: My guest this week is retired FDNY captain, Brenda Berkman. She served New York City for a quarter of a century and was one of the many off-duty firefighters who ran into the rubble of the World Trade Center on September 11th. She returned to the site four months afterwards to assist in recovery efforts. In retirement Captain Berkman volunteers still today leading tours at the 9/11 tribute museum. We talk about her incredible journey to becoming a firefighter, why she ended up returning to the same courtroom for nearly five years, how she fought fires and dealt with daily discrimination from male colleagues and also her reflections on the 18th anniversary of the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil. That’s coming up, stay tuned.
Preet Bharara: Captain Brenda Berkman, thank you for being on the show.
Brenda Berkman: You can call me, Brenda, Preet because I’m going to call you, Preet.
Preet Bharara: You can call me, Preet.
Brenda Berkman: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: So we’re taping this during the week of 9/11, the 18th anniversary. You were a first responder on that day even though you were off-duty. But your path to becoming a first responder, a firefighter was not the normal path to say the least.
Brenda Berkman: No. It was a little [inaudible 00:17:58].
Preet Bharara: I want to spend some time because it’s a real honor to meet you and to have you on the show, and tell your story because it’s one about justice, and also personal perseverance I think. So you began after going to college and after getting I think a master’s degree.
Brenda Berkman: All right, in history.
Preet Bharara: You decide to do a thing that I also did which is go to law school. You went to the law school where I teach.
Brenda Berkman: I know. I’m so pleased about that.
Preet Bharara: NYU Law School.
Brenda Berkman: No, I am. I am genuinely pleased about them. I’m glad they snagged you.
Preet Bharara: You didn’t love law school. In fact, tell us what do you think about law school?
Brenda Berkman: I really did not love law school. At that point, I was married to a lawyer. My father-in-law was a very accomplished lawyer. He had his own firm so it was a small firm. So I had role models in my own family at that point of people who loved law school. Maybe my husband not so much. I went to law school with the idea that I was going to use the law to achieve social change. That’s what I wanted to do with my life.
Preet Bharara: And you did ultimately.
Brenda Berkman: Well, I did. But not necessarily as a lawyer. Although that entered in. So I get to law school and then I discover that in fact the law is a very conservative mindset. People don’t understand that and I certainly didn’t because I didn’t have any lawyers of my family growing up. And I didn’t know anything about the law really other than look what all the great things that had been done with it during the civil rights movement. I’m talking about the ’60s and the struggle for racial justice at that point.
Brenda Berkman: The judges and the attorneys were so courageous and represented people. My late father-in-law actually had represented black youth who had been accused of raping a white woman. I mean, there was a lot going on to inspire me in the law. Then I get to law school.
Preet Bharara: And you were let down.
Brenda Berkman: Yeah. I was very much let down, and I wanted to work for a social justice organization. I want to represent workers for employment law and stuff. It’s hard to get a job in that. I mean, I ended up doing some immigration law and representing applicants for asylum on a pro-bono basis.
Preet Bharara: Yeah. We could use your help now, again.
Brenda Berkman: Well, the laws changed a lot. I retired from the practice of law, but-
Preet Bharara: Because you decided at some point.
Brenda Berkman: I struggled. I managed it.
Preet Bharara: I’d met people who went to law school and then later become doctors. People go to law school, go into media, become Hollywood agents. All sorts of different things. You’re the first person I’m meeting who went to law school and decided to become a firefighter. What was going on-
Brenda Berkman: Mystifying to my mother.
Preet Bharara: Did you know how hard it is to be a firefighter when you decided you wanted to go down that path?
Brenda Berkman: How hard it was going to be for me personally?
Preet Bharara: Generally. We’ll get to your personal story in a moment.
Brenda Berkman: Well, yes, somewhat. I didn’t come from a family of firefighters, and I didn’t have any role models of firefighters growing up because women were not firefighters and they didn’t even allow women to take the test in New York until 1977. I was already in law school. I knew that firefighting is challenging. You have to know a lot of things about a lot of different things. That was part of its appeal for me actually. You have to know a little bit about a lot of stuff, and it’s fun to figure out stuff, but more importantly really to help people which was a way that I was raised.
Brenda Berkman: I knew it was going to be difficult, and I knew it was going to be difficult for me personally because I had worked… As a law student, I had worked on a case that involved women police officers where they were challenging the layoffs. When did you move to New York, Preet?
Preet Bharara: For law school, 1990.
Brenda Berkman: Oh, yeah. I was long gone by then. So this was during the so-called fiscal crisis, right? And there were all these layoffs and they were laying off women disproportionately because women had been hired later because they were being discriminated against. Nobody remembers the police department had a 3% quota on hiring women officers, and those women got much higher scores on the exams than the guys had and they would have had a higher place an earlier hiring but for that discrimination.
Brenda Berkman: So my late father-in-law was representing these women. What happened to them? Well, the name class plaintiff got sent out in the middle of freaking nowhere in a dangerous area and she literally didn’t know if she got in trouble if somebody would come. So their lives were threatened and their careers because they stood up. But I knew that challenging the status quo and these non-traditional jobs for women was not going to be a piece of cake. Did I understand really how incredibly difficult it was? No.
Preet Bharara: Not fully. Here’s another thing. In 1978, they were how many women firefighters in New York City?
Brenda Berkman: In 1978? Zero.
Preet Bharara: Zero.
Brenda Berkman: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: And you decided to be one.
Brenda Berkman: Yes. So ’77 was the first time that they opened up the test to women. So like I say all the time, it didn’t matter what your physical capabilities were as a woman. You could have been Olympic caliber athlete, you could not even apply. You couldn’t even try.
Preet Bharara: You couldn’t even show up.
Brenda Berkman: You couldn’t show up. Because they changed the law. And for the first time Title 7 was applied to states and municipalities that affected the fire test. So, yes, it had gone into effect earlier in the ’70s but the fire tests had not been given for many years.
Preet Bharara: There’s a physical test back then still?
Brenda Berkman: And a written test.
Preet Bharara: So on the physical side first, describe for my audience what your physical condition was back then?
Brenda Berkman: My physical condition?
Preet Bharara: Yeah.
Brenda Berkman: Also, I was running marathons and I was training, and I was a cross-country skier, and I was lifting weights, and I was doing sprints. I was a jock, and I had been really my whole life.
Preet Bharara: Hockey player?
Brenda Berkman: No, because Title IX hadn’t… I grew up pre-Title IX. So I tried to join Little League but the Little League coach sent my mother’s $5 back, you know and I was told girls don’t play Little League. It was very limited, organized sports opportunities, certainly very limited training or competitive stuff.
Preet Bharara: But you were very fit when you were applying?
Brenda Berkman: I was way fit and I was carrying my ex-husband up and down the stairs in our apartment building trying to practice-
Preet Bharara: To prepare for the test?
Brenda Berkman: Prepare for the test.
Preet Bharara: And what was the test at that time?
Brenda Berkman: All kinds of goofy stuff.
Speaker 5: The test items were not really firefighting items, they were sort of abstract measures of fitness such as a standing broad jump, vaults over walls. That doesn’t really work what you really have to do is measure the fitness component in the manner in which the person performs it.
Brenda Berkman: You go back and you read the media accounts from that time, it’s really misleading because even the New York Times… Especially the New York Times got things wrong about what was being asked, what was being required. But just to give a couple of examples. So they have to analyze, the city had to analyze what are the abilities needed in order to be trained to be a firefighter. So they come up with a list of physical abilities that they think people need to have me trained. One of them is stamina. How do you test for stamina? They tested for stamina by doing a mile run. Arguably a mile run is not a test of stamina, it’s a test of speed.
Preet Bharara: Because you can do 26 of them back then?
Brenda Berkman: Yeah. Not aerobic. So that’s number one. But then they want to have a cut-off pass mark. So the experts say the cutoff pass mark should be, I think it was 10 minutes, something like that for a mile run. Not really fast, but reasonable fitness. Most firefighters can’t run a mile faster than 10 minutes. But at any event, the experts come up with 10 minutes. They have a meeting. A fire chief says, “My daughter can run a mile in 10 minutes. I think we should have it seven and a half minutes.”
Brenda Berkman: And that’s how they came up with a pass mark for the mile run. Now, I was a runner. I had no problem running anything around at five minutes. Must have been a short mile. Then we had to jump over an eight-foot wall. I mean, literally, you had to jump up, pull yourself over an eight-foot wall and they had some kind of explanation for that which at trial was shown to be totally bogus. That’s not what people do. We don’t throw people up on our shoulders and run up the stairs with them on our shoulders. We don’t do that. But that’s what they were testing. And it was goofy.
Preet Bharara: How did you do on the test?
Brenda Berkman: Failed. As did every single woman. Only 90 of us showed up of the over 400 that were eligible to take the physical exam. So about 400 women had passed written but then it was all this press. Hardest test ever given for firefighter. Women can’t do it. They’re going to do terribly. So women just didn’t show up.
Preet Bharara: How was the written test? How did you do on that?
Brenda Berkman: The written test was relatively easy.
Preet Bharara: A cake?
Brenda Berkman: Yeah. Relatively easy. I mean, I’m sure people still failed it but not very many people failed it. So the physical test became the sole determinant of whether you were going to get hired. Even with that it was rank ordered so the previous tests have been pass/fail. So if you passed every part of it, you passed the test. With our tests, it was how you did on every element of it. So you had to pass them all, and then the faster you ran the mile the higher score et cetera. So even if women had passed the test, they probably would not have been hired off the list.
Preet Bharara: Just so we’re clear are you saying that when the law required women to be able to sit for the physical test, take the physical test, they changed it to make it more difficult.
Brenda Berkman: Yeah. And at the trial, the civil servant, the personnel guy for the city who was in charge of administering the test said it’s the hardest test we’ve ever given for anything. Now that kind of raises-
Preet Bharara: Why would you do that?
Brenda Berkman: … your suspicions just a little bit. But what people don’t understand is that if the city had been able to prove that the test was job-related namely tested for the actual abilities needed to be trained as a firefighter, that test would have stood.
Preet Bharara: Right. Your complaint was not that it was too hard, your complaint was they were testing for the wrong quality?
Brenda Berkman: Yeah. So they were hiring the wrong guys. If you want to take this out to its logical conclusion, they would be hiring the wrong guys as well because they weren’t really testing for the correct abilities in the right way. Then you get a bunch of… All the media was holding these public opinion polls. So like the Daily News would say, they would ask, “Do you think standards should be lowered in order for women to be hired as firefighters?” Nobody is going to say yes to that. I wouldn’t say yes to that.
Preet Bharara: That’s a leading question of a certain kind.
Brenda Berkman: Do you think standards should be changed to have a fair test that actually tests for the abilities to be determined? Yes. Everyone I think would agree to that and that’s what I was saying, but that’s not the way that the media was portraying the test. And then the union was very much against my lawsuit. And when I won the lawsuit before the district court in the Eastern District of New York namely Brooklyn, the city did not appeal. The union took the appeal up to the Supreme Court. The Union is going around saying these women are two weeks. They’re going to be a danger to the public, they’re going to be a danger to their fellow firefighters, they’re going to be a danger to themselves, and people bought that. They bought that including some of the male firefighters.
Preet Bharara: How old were you at the time?
Brenda Berkman: When I finally won my lawsuit in 1982 I was 31.
Preet Bharara: So during the pendency of the lawsuit and the press is picking up on it, did you feel like a pioneer? Did you feel like you were doing this for yourself and maybe would have consequences for other people? What was going through your head when you were going through all this struggle?
Brenda Berkman: So I’m a student of history and I realized that people had done really hard things to give me the opportunities that I had as a white woman growing up in the 1950s even though they were limited and continued to be limited for women, okay? But I realized that people had suffered a lot for other groups as well, and that this was not going to be something that just changed overnight. I thought if they could go through all of that, if they could lose their lives in… Listen, Martin Luther King, Robert F. Kennedy all those people, they were in my personal experience, and I thought this is a little thing in the big scheme of things.
Brenda Berkman: I thought it was an important thing to not give up. It was something that I thought and I really believe this that the community and the fire service both are advantaged by having different people as their firefighters. So women were going to bring a different set of experiences to the job that would benefit everybody, people of color, people who grew up in the city, different generations. All these different perspectives and life experiences, they’re going to help the fire department do a better job.
Brenda Berkman: People thought this was a thinking, “Oh, lawyer and feminist. Oh, F-word.” So she’s just a bra-burning feminist. She’s going to win the lawsuit maybe, probably not. If she does, she’s never going to take the job, she’s never going to be a firefighter. There was a lot of money riding on that. I wish I had taken those bets.
Preet Bharara: So people thought you were just trying to make a point?
Brenda Berkman: Yes, make a political point.
Preet Bharara: You really wanted to be a firefighter.
Brenda Berkman: Yes, because I was a sole name class plaintiff. I was put on the stand by Judge Sifton to testify that if I won my lawsuit, I would quit my law practice and become a firefighter. If I had said, “No, I’m not going to do that,” that would have been the end of the lawsuit because there would have been no name class plaintiff, no plaintiff. I told the truth. I wasn’t lying under oath like so many other people do on occasion.
Preet Bharara: You want to name some of those?
Brenda Berkman: You have no experience in that? I’m sure you have never encountered that in your career.
Preet Bharara: There’s a lot of pressure. The lawsuit as you as you have alluded to was Brenda Berkman versus City of New York.
Brenda Berkman: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: There was a lot on your shoulders. Did you ever have down moments during that time?
Brenda Berkman: Ha. My late father-in-law got fired from his client, the Uniformed Fire Officers union who had done a stellar job for them for 30 years, he got fired because they thought he was supporting me in this and encouraging me. And in fact my father-in-law was not anxious for me to become a firefighter. My ex-husband did support me, but there were consequences. I mean, I got death threats. I had to get an unlisted phone number in the days when people just did not have unlisted phone numbers. Again, I’m sure you can identify with this.
Brenda Berkman: People are leaving death threats on my answering machine. They were showing up at my apartment building. They were following me around on the street threatening me, sending me threatening letters, pornography to my… This is all before I came on the job.
Preet Bharara: Right. We’re going to get to when you got in the job in a moment.
Speaker 6: Lives will be lost, additional injuries to both the public and to the firefighters.
Speaker 7: They’re jeopardizing human life of the people of the city of New York.
Preet Bharara: Were you surprised at how angry people got and people might have a different point of view, it was a long time ago, and they might think archaically that you shouldn’t have a woman firefighter. But why so much anger and bitterness about it?
Brenda Berkman: Such a challenge to the image that people have, the last bastion of male supremacy. And I would say military combat, similar kind of thing. And maybe to also to some extent the trades, the skilled trades. But there’s a sense of entitlement in a lot of these families that this is a job that’s reserved for my son, my cousin, male cousin, my male neighbor, et cetera. If women are competing against us they’re going to get all kinds of special advantages because that’s what happens with minorities even though we’re not a minority.
Brenda Berkman: And then my son won’t get hired as a firefighter, but I think at a deeper level and this applies to even non-firefighting families, it’s a threat to their like worldview. Women are still regarded as lesser, and if women can do this job then somehow it undercuts the pedestal that we have put these men on. This is how I see it is that it is really hard whether it’s racism or misogyny or discrimination gets people based on their religion. It’s ignorance. It’s ignorance and an idea that there are groups of people that are not as good as you. Therefore because people have to establish a top dog hierarchy.
Brenda Berkman: So this, this is like the ultimate challenge, America’s heroes. You say fireman, and people still say fireman, civil service term changed before women even came on the job in the 1970s. So please say firefighter. They have this idea of six-foot-six muscular man with a handlebar mustache, usually white and that’s your firefighter. Well, newsflash. Male firefighters have always been different sizes and different physical capabilities and different backgrounds in some respects, and they managed to get the job done, so why wouldn’t women do it.
Preet Bharara: So you achieve what a lot of people thought you couldn’t have achieved. You win the lawsuit and everyone lives happily ever after because the law fixed everything, right?
Brenda Berkman: So this is another, you know.
Preet Bharara: 1982 you win. Before you go on to what you had to face after that, how did you feel when you found out that you won?
Brenda Berkman: Yay. Because I had great lawyers. I was so lucky I had Laura Sager and the women’s rights clinic at NYU where you now teach. Let’s just keep giving NYU kudos here.
Preet Bharara: They’ll be very happy.
Brenda Berkman: I know they will. And so Laura had taken this case but very wisely decided that this is way beyond what me and my students can do in the law clinic because it’s a multi-million dollar case really in terms of the resources I had to be thrown at that went on for close to five years. She brought in Double Voice and Plimpton.
Preet Bharara: Big law firm in New York.
Brenda Berkman: Big law firm, white-shoe law firm. They have very senior litigators who were assigned to this case, and very accomplished associates. In those days, all the typists and all the people who were making the xeroxes and all that, and they could hire the experts which costs a lot of money. So all of that worked in my favor. And then when we won, since, I was a sole name class plaintiff and the other women hadn’t exactly flocked to our cause, the question was is only Brenda Berkman going to be interested in having this job? Well, fortunately more than 40 women decided to take and passed the revised physical, the new job-related physical.
Brenda Berkman: So now we had a group of about 40 that went into the fire academy. So normally in the fire department when you get passed the test, and you go into the fire academy, there’s a little bit of torture that goes on and stuff, but basically in New York City people were not fired out of the fire academy. They were trained and they were sent out into the field, So we were there and it was like open season on the women. I mean, the guys might as well have not been there. Nobody was really looking at them or paying attention to them.
Brenda Berkman: There were certain instructors out there being encouraged by the union and others to get rid of the women in the fire academy. So we were really abused a lot in the fire academy. In fact, there were a number of instances one woman was very seriously injured out there. Other women could have been seriously injured and killed. We were given smoke inhalation like I’ve never had except for maybe 9/11. I’ve never had… And this went on basically uninterfered with.
Preet Bharara: Because they were trying to get you a drop out.
Brenda Berkman: Right.
Preet Bharara: You won the lawsuit, but we’re not done with you yet.
Brenda Berkman: No. So we’re going to get rid of you in the academy, and they did succeed in getting a few women to quit, was astounding to me on some levels is that way more women didn’t quit and they just stuck with it, and many women had to repeat the course. I did not have to go through the fire academy for additional days. I graduated on time with… It was a very small number of us, maybe 10 or 12 of us out of the 40-something that actually graduated on time. And again, why we graduated and other people didn’t graduate it was nuts. They kept changing the standards in the academy. So the department was complicit in this. It wasn’t just these individuals and the union. The department was changing the standards for graduation practically every single day.
Preet Bharara: Was there a way to fight back during that period or you just sort of tried to get through it?
Brenda Berkman: I didn’t know what was supposed to be the real deal out in the academy, I mean, how had it been done in the past. We did have some support from the Vulcan Society which was a group of African-American firefighters and officers who have had, and go through similar kinds of things. And they knew this was out of whack, but the thinking was we just have to get through this. We just have to get through this. And then once we get in the firehouse, we’ll be on probation for a year and there’ll be some people who obviously won’t like us to be there, but we’ll get through that.
Preet Bharara: So then you go to the firehouse. Which firehouse… Which I’m going to ask you to put that into-
Brenda Berkman: Thanks for asking me in the news.
Preet Bharara: I’m going to ask you to put that into words. So which firehouse did you go to?
Brenda Berkman: So I went to a fire company that no longer exists although the firehouse is still there. Mayor Dinkins closed engine 17 on the Lower East Side, underneath the Williamsburg Bridge there. It was not a great place to send me. There were poor leadership there and issues with other things. They didn’t make it a welcoming place. So I get there and the media wants to follow me all around that’s really helpful when you’re trying to learn the job and you already feel like in a fishbowl, and the guys didn’t like that either. So a little time passes, and some of the men start testing the waters. So they start doing little things and then they start doing bigger things. And then-
Preet Bharara: Were you the only woman at that firehouse?
Brenda Berkman: So I was the only woman in that battalion. So they said all the women to firehouses-
Preet Bharara: Separate places?
Brenda Berkman: Separate places. All medium to very busy houses. No woman went to a slaughterhouse.
Preet Bharara: Right. But every woman was alone wherever she was assigned.
Brenda Berkman: So it was only if you went to something a big fire like a second alarm, that you might see another woman but then there were the women firefighters who didn’t want to see the other women because they were told you’re okay, but that woman down over there, she’s no good. And you’re our girl, you’re okay. We’re in whatever. It’s called the mentality of the token. There’s all kinds of us studies of this. You never ever encountered that, I’m sure. So some of the women were not supportive of some of the other one. Me being like the chief troublemaker.
Brenda Berkman: While I was in the academy, I formed an organization, the United Women Firefighters because I knew when we get out in the field, they’re going to try and pick us off one by one. We got to organize, and we got to support one another. So we need an organization for that. So I formed that and then they elected me the president really who would want to be the president of that. I was trying to talk to the department about all this stuff. So then the men in my firehouse put me out of the meal. So that meant that I had to eat by myself, make all my food by myself.
Preet Bharara: What were you eating?
Brenda Berkman: Peanut butter and jelly. I wouldn’t eat peanut… I had peanut butter and jelly for a sandwich this morning. I wouldn’t eat peanut butter.
Preet Bharara: You said for a long time, you didn’t.
Brenda Berkman: No, I would not eat peanut butter and jelly for a very long time after that.
Preet Bharara: Because you associate it with that time.
Brenda Berkman: Yeah. This is like really getting in the weeds, but because we were two units in that house, one unit would go out and buy the food for the other unit and we’d all eat together but not me. I’d say would you pick me up an apple. And the apple would come and it would be like the worst freaking apple. You’ve never said it in your life. I mean, inedible. So I just stopped doing that. I just stopped asking them to get me anything. So I could go up for 24 hours, up to 24 hours really with nothing to eat.
Preet Bharara: So then you go through your probationary period and you make it through the torture and abuse and now everything is fine, right?
Brenda Berkman: No. It’s still not fine. I don’t want your listeners to think that period was the only thing that was going on with me was being put out of the meal. I mean, there’s a great story about that. I was in another firehouse and basically the captain had ordered them not to put me out of the meal. I was only there for a month. And so he wasn’t working and they had a covering officer who happened to be African-American. Covering officers, you can get around things sometimes if you want to.
Brenda Berkman: And so they went to him and they say, “We don’t have enough food. Brenda can’t eat.” And he said, “What?” I mean you said it like that. They had told me and I was out on the upper house floor by myself crying because this had not happened to me there, and I was just like, “Wow, this is going to be my career, right?” And he went in and he said, “Well, she can have half of my food. We always had too much food anyway.”
Brenda Berkman: And suddenly there was enough food for me. But it took people like that and there were guys like that who would stand up for the women and other women who would stand up for the other women. So there were people who supported us and women from outside the fire department and men from outside the fire department who supported us, but I had my air tank drained. I had crap left in my boots. I had my equipment tampered with. This is a dangerous job. So the idea that you can’t count on your co-workers to support you in a dangerous situation that’s that not encouraging.
Preet Bharara: Well, did you ever worry when you went out on calls that you weren’t perfectly safe? Separate from the hazing that was happening in the firehouse.
Brenda Berkman: I told my ex-husband of something that happens where I lose my life or I get seriously injured, I want you to investigate this shit out of this. Sorry, beep.
Preet Bharara: You’re allowed to say that.
Brenda Berkman: Yes. I had real fears. One of the death threats. The guy who left a message on my answering machine was calling from the firehouse. You could hear the dispatcher in the background and the firehouse noises. One woman was threatened to be pushed off a roof by one of her co-workers in the company. This stuff was very real and women stuck with it. Once they got on the job not only did they stick with it through the academy, through all that stuff but they did not resign. I think there was only one woman who completed her probationary period who subsequently resigned, and then another woman moved and she resigned.
Brenda Berkman: But almost all the women stayed. They all stayed. This was a good job, and a lot of these women this was going to be the best job that they would ever get in terms of money and benefits and the opportunity for community service and just so many different ways that it’s appealing.
Preet Bharara: So then you became a firefighter after that year?
Brenda Berkman: Well, they fired me.
Preet Bharara: And so you have to go back to court again to the same judge?
Brenda Berkman: Yes. So first they torture us, then they fire us. They sent myself and one other woman who just happened to be the two most publicly prominent women of the whole group.
Preet Bharara: Troublemakers.
Brenda Berkman: She had a New York magazine cover story about her where she praised the men she worked with to the high heavens, and then they put her out of meal.
Speaker 8: An unfortunate coincidence is what [Spinato] called it, the two women who didn’t make it. The two most visible. The one who made the cover of New York magazine and the one who filed the suit. Brenda Berkman who didn’t make it is the one who made it possible for the 22 who did.
Brenda Berkman: So Zeta and I… There were other women who were under threat, but we were ordered back to the fire academy to be re-evaluated right before the end of our probationary period. We had started out getting really good evaluations. Everything was fine and then the fire commissioner had a meeting with all the captains where the women were assigned and said, “If you can find a reason to fire these women I’ll back you up.” So suddenly a lot of our evaluations started going down the tubes. And then Zeta and I got hold back out to the academy. When I tell you… “Well, one guy who was back out there for retraining, who was with us, he then retired rather than go through what we were going through because he said, “I’m going to get hurt here. So I’m just going to retire.”
Brenda Berkman: At the end of that retesting were we come into work one morning, 6:00 in the morning. I pass a guy sitting at the front desk, and he says to me, “You’re going to be fired today.” And I said, “What are you talking about?” He says, “It’s in the Daily News.”
Preet Bharara: That’s how you found out?
Brenda Berkman: That’s how I found out I was going to be fired. And then Zeta and I, meanwhile, Zeta was like, she didn’t have the legal background that I had. I looked at what was happening to us and I thought this is the perfect retaliation. I don’t think I was ever so confident.
Preet Bharara: So NYU Law School was very helpful.
Brenda Berkman: Yes, way more than the original case itself. The retaliation case seemed to me it would be a lock. Maybe my lawyers didn’t quite feel that way. We got hold in, we got fired. I had to go clean out my locker down at my firehouse. One of my women friends went with me, they clapped when I left. Just fantastic, wonderful. And then we had to have a separate trial in the city kept trying to delay it and delay it. Chief attorney had to go to China. Okay, the judge said, “I think you have a few other attorneys. We got to go forward with this.” And sure enough a couple months later, Zeta and I got our job back, and then we had to go back to the fire academy again, and be reevaluated again. But this time there were actually a couple of battalion chiefs who were looking at what we were doing, what was happening to us so things were more on the level, and then we got our firehouses changed. And that was not the end.
Preet Bharara: So from the time you decide to become a firefighter to this moment after two lawsuits, how many years had passed?
Brenda Berkman: So let’s see. I won the lawsuit in the spring of ’82, and I came on the job and the fall of ’82 coming up on the anniversary right now of that. I got fired in ’83 and came back in January of 1984.
Preet Bharara: So a lot of years?
Brenda Berkman: Yeah. It was a lot of years from ’77.
Preet Bharara: But then you served continuously in the FDNY for a quarter century?
Brenda Berkman: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: And how was that?
Brenda Berkman: Well, the beginning was not fun.
Preet Bharara: Once you got in the second time, did you have a different kind of feeling of satisfaction than you had the first time?
Brenda Berkman: Initially, maybe a little bit. And not just for me. The discrimination against the first group of women firefighters did not stop when Zeta and I got our jobs back. And it continues to this day. It affects women’s promotional opportunities, their assignment opportunities. That stuff still goes on. Not to the degree that it did and things have gotten a lot better. We were before the judge. I’m sure Judge Sifton did not expect this case to go on before him for like 10 years.
Brenda Berkman: And they tried with various women. They tried to reassign them to desk jobs and things that were just pure and simple discrimination, apart from Zeta and myself. So we were… By we, I say my lawyers and women firefighter organization. We were in court a lot for 10 years. And it didn’t affect every woman but my feeling was said if they succeed, if the fire department succeeds in making women quit and picking off the women one by one, then eventually we’ll get down to almost no women or no women.
Brenda Berkman: And sure enough they did some other things that resulted in the number of 40 dropping down, down, down and then the women from the original group were retired by the time that 9/11 happened. So we only had about 25 women as active firefighters at the time of 9/11 out of a fire force of about 10,500-11,000. But when Zeta and I went back to the firehouses, Zeta ended up resigning because she just could not catch a break, and I got to be too much for her.
Brenda Berkman: I had issues. I decided that I was going to study for promotion and I was going to stick with this. I was going to try my best to make a contribution to the fire service. Now, my own department didn’t want to hear anything from me even though I had all these advanced degrees and you know think of myself as like kind of an analytical person to some respects, and like to study things. They were like no.
Brenda Berkman: And so I looked outside my own department. So this is like an example of sometimes the things that you think are the worst thing that can happen to you in your life may end up being a really good thing for you. So I went outside my own department, I joined and became the president and legal adviser for the National Organization of Women Firefighters. I got put on National Fire Protection Association committees at a time where FDNY really didn’t participate in a lot of that.
Brenda Berkman: Certainly firefighters didn’t participate in that. It might be some very high-ranking chief. I went all over the world. People invited me to come and speak, and I met people from all over the world. I realized that it didn’t have to be this way that other departments, other organizations were doing things differently and better, and that we could learn from these other departments, we could make things better not only for the women here but it’s always been my belief that when you made things better for the women and the people of color in the fire department the white male firefighters benefit from that in ways they that you know they may not initially see.
Preet Bharara: Like how?
Brenda Berkman: Well, you are seen, and everybody’s got tunnel vision, and they’re thinking exactly the same way. And so that can get your hurt. If you have some people who have different life experiences that they bring to this, and they’re actually heard, their opinions are actually respected, they’re encouraged to participate in the organization, in an equal way which didn’t happen a lot of the time, that is to the benefit of everybody. Corporations recognize this. They know that you need different voices in the room, and the fire services has been very slow to come to this realization.
Brenda Berkman: Some departments are much faster than others. New York like a dinosaur. But people recognize and they admire firefighters for the fact that we do what we can to help people in their worst hours. We see everything. We take people out of bathtubs that are stuck in their bathtub. We see terrible things. We see people that have died.
Speaker 9: [crosstalk] Holy shit.
Preet Bharara: Speaking of worst hours, we’ve referred a few times to 9/11, tell us about September 11, 2001, your morning.
Brenda Berkman: So I got up, I thought I was going to be working in a political campaign and go vote. It was my day off, and I was having my second cup of coffee in my apartment out of Brooklyn. What a beautiful day, unbelievable. I was looking forward to the day. I had changed my campaign assignment from lower Manhattan like two blocks away from the Trade Center. This is how the day went for people, just luck, to Brooklyn. At 9:00 in the morning I get a phone call from Kentucky and my friend says turn on your television. That’s when I see the North Tower burning, the South Tower hadn’t been hit yet. And I look at that and everybody’s saying, “It must have been a small plane or a helicopter.” I’m looking and I’m thinking terrorism.
Preet Bharara: There’s a huge gash, multiple floors.
Brenda Berkman: Giant fire. I had been to helicopter crashes, plane, little things, and I looked at that and I thought that’s a commercial plane. A commercial pilot would have been in the Hudson River before they would have flown over there. We don’t keep our gear at home. I think I’ll run to the headquarters in Brooklyn. Then while I’m outside of my apartment I hear second plane has gone into the South Tower. So I think firehouse. So I run to the firehouse that I had been promoted out of over in Brooklyn, Engine 219, Ladder 105, and I get there, second tower is burning, burning. And there’s about half a dozen of us that come in from home. They hadn’t recalled us yet.
Brenda Berkman: No fire trucks, no equipment, no members for New York City Fire Department, couldn’t have happened at a worse time. Change of tours. Night tour was there, day tour was there many times, double the number of firefighters got on the trucks, they took all the equipment with them. So we’re trying to figure out cops had shut down all the bridges and tunnels. I don’t know if people remember this but it was hard to get over-
Preet Bharara: You couldn’t get anywhere.
Brenda Berkman: You couldn’t get anywhere. The public transport dispatchers had sent all the train traffic elsewhere, the subways and everything so you couldn’t get there with that. My firehouse was north of the Trade Center and I thought, “How am I going to get to my firehouse so that’s why I went to the Brooklyn firehouse.” And then we go next door to the cops. You’ll laugh about this. We go next door to the cops. We say, “Could you please give us a police officer and a van to drive us over to Manhattan so we can help out?” And to our surprise they say okay, because normally they didn’t talk to us.
Brenda Berkman: Actually they had arrested one of our members. It was stupid stuff. So they say okay so we go back to firehouse and we were watching the television. One third of the entire world was watching the Trade Center in real-time. And while we’re watching, the South Tower falls in 56 minutes. And about that time here comes the police officer with the van. Now, we get in. All we basically have is the stuff on our back so our coats, our pants, maybe a spare ax, no breathing apparatus, no radios to communicate with, no tools to speak of. Just as we’re getting across the Brooklyn Bridge, we’re the only vehicle on the bridge when we started across on the inbound side, mobs of people covered in dust going out to Brooklyn on the outbound side.
Preet Bharara: Right. Coming back the other way.
Brenda Berkman: Yeah. And so we’re looking at them. We’re in our little van. We get to the Manhattan side. We hear a big noise. North Tower fell down. We’re in this gigantic dust storm and police officer turns on his windshield wipers. He can’t see. Stop the van, we’re going to run over somebody. We hop out. We’re coughing. There’s a fire chief standing there right on Broadway. He’s got a little line of officers. I walk over to him, “Chief, give me an assignment.” He knew me. He says, “Brenda, you got any firefighters with you?” People had come over with a scattered array.
Brenda Berkman: They’re standing on Broadway a group of my own off-duty firefighters from my own firehouse in Chelsea. They have no equipment either. No radios, no breathing apparatus, no hose lines, no nothing. We get an assignment. We walked towards the Trade Center. Worse than anything you could imagine. I tell people, “You’ve seen the movies, you’ve read the books.” Nope, that’s not it. It was so much worse. I know the people with me thought we’re definitely going to die today.
Brenda Berkman: But what are you going to do? We thought thousands of people are trapped in there. We have to do whatever we can. We’ve got no water. The water mains are all broken. When the towers fall down, we had no communications, we have no tools, but we’re going to do whatever we can do. So we start looking for the people that might be on the top and the sides that we can find, and we do this.
Brenda Berkman: We walk over towards… Somebody says, “Your fire truck is parked over…” We were at Church Street. Fire truck is parked over on West Street on the other side, and I think okay, let’s go over there because we find the on-duty people, they have all the equipment, we can get the truck going. We put water on the fire. I’m thinking all this. We can be useful. We get over there. We can’t get the truck started it’s all full of dust, it won’t start. Nobody around, no equipment, completely stripped off. So we continue looking for people.
Preet Bharara: When did you understand how many firefighters had gone up into the buildings before they crashed?
Brenda Berkman: I knew there had been thousands of firefighters down there because I knew they had sent all the firefighters from 125th Street South.
Preet Bharara: All of them?
Brenda Berkman: All those companies, yeah. Pretty much, yeah. Maybe not some of them went. Anyway, most everybody and all the companies in Brooklyn that ringed Manhattan, lower Manhattan. and all our special units and then people like myself who just came in from home got there. So everybody knew. There were thousands of firefighters cops and thousands of civilians. I only learned this after I started doing volunteering as a tour guide for the 9/11 memorial that 50,000 people worked in that building every day, those buildings, seven buildings and every single one of them was destroyed on 9/11.
Brenda Berkman: So we’re working and we’re working, and it’s getting dark, and crazy. Other people joined with me because they lost track of who they were supposed to be with and all that, and people were out of their minds. At 5:20 in the afternoon, we hear a big noise and we were in the collapse zone for number seven World Trade Center. So we start running down the street, we’re in the dust cloud, another dust cloud. Everybody forgets about seven because-
Preet Bharara: People forget about that.
Brenda Berkman: There was only 47 stories. Only the people who have conspiracy theories don’t forget about seven, but seven fell down. We could have been killed then. And we ran into a building, we got out of it, waited for it to stop, came back out again, and continued working. And about midnight I thought wow, we haven’t had anything to eat or drink really here. Everybody’s getting… They’re not right. We got to go back to the firehouse. So that’s when we go back, and that’s when we discover the initially thousands of people were listed as missing. I was listed as missing, initially.
Brenda Berkman: The man whose gear I had borrowed in Brooklyn to put on, Vinnie Brunton, he believed to be alive because people saw him walking around, but it wasn’t him, it was me wearing his gear. He was killed. I mean it was just… So ultimately we learned that the on-duty lieutenant that day from my company, Lieutenant Phil Petti from Ladder 12 and two of my firefighters were killed evacuating people from the Marriott hotel, guests from the Marriott hotel. And other of my firefighters who were standing only 10 feet away from them survived. We lost our two highest-ranking people to be killed that day, Bill Feehan and Pete Ganci on West Street. And the engine in my firehouse who were standing next to them, they ran a different direction and they all survived. It was just a fluke.
Preet Bharara: Yeah. So you work night and day busy doing stuff trying to look for people trying to help them. At what moment did you begin to take in the magnitude of the loss not just to your colleagues in the fire department but the country and the city?
Brenda Berkman: Immediately. I mean, incredible, dangerous, toxic, terrible. I mean people talk about the… People who were there remember the smell.
Preet Bharara: I remember the smell for months. The US attorney’s office was right across the way, very close. You come out of the Brooklyn Bridge subway stop. I would come from 22nd Street back then, and the 22nd Street the air was sort of fine though you could smell a little bit, but you come out at the Brooklyn Bridge we would say it smelled like death for a long time.
Brenda Berkman: Yeah. And the fires burned there for about six months because we had to keep going down, down, down in layers. And what’s amazing to me is that nobody was killed after 9/11. I mean it was such an incredibly dangerous site particularly at the beginning. Things could fall on you. If you fell into the pile, not only might you burn up, but you could get cut to shreds because basically everything that was there was like a field of razor blades.
Brenda Berkman: People got injured, I got injured the second day I was down there, the 12th. I cut my arm open. Nobody went sick. Some guys that had driven up overnight from Maryland. People showed up. This is what I really want to emphasize about this story. So it was terrible. The fire department, I’m sorry, was totally unprepared for this. It did not have the large incident capabilities that we needed for that job. And we had to call on the US Fire Service and the National Fire Academy and bring in people to give us a hand. And then all these people showed up.
Brenda Berkman: So volunteers, we had half a million people from all over the world to help us here in New York. And that was amazing. Now, we didn’t want them in the pile because they were danger to themselves and they were danger to us, but they did all kinds of things for us these people and we were incredibly grateful even though we may not have acted like it at the time. So that was important. That was really important. People wanted to… They want to say thank you and they wanted to help. Most of all they wanted to help.
Preet Bharara: I remember the lines of people standing-
Brenda Berkman: To donate blood.
Preet Bharara: … to donate blood and no blood was really ever needed.
Brenda Berkman: No.
Preet Bharara: It was one of the saddest moments and images from that time.
Brenda Berkman: We tried really, really hard to find somebody alive after 9/11 and we did not succeed. Even though people were taking enormous risks to go in there and look. The survivor guilt. A lot of my friends who survived 9/11, they still talk about the survivor guilt.
Preet Bharara: Do you feel it?
Brenda Berkman: Absolutely.
Preet Bharara: 343 firefighters died that day.
Brenda Berkman: 343 firefighters, 23 New York City police officers, 37 port authority. All kinds of other uniformed people, court officers, they all rushed there and tried to help. And then all these volunteers as well who went to… The firefighters’ memorial is actually dedicated to Glen Winnick who was a volunteer firefighter who went there and lost his life. And then all the people who were injured and exposed to all this toxicity. So the survivor guilt is enormous. But you have to… I don’t know. A lot of people also talk about how… Out of respect to the people who are lost, we can’t just… Those of us who did survive, we can’t just sit around and mope about it. All right?
Brenda Berkman: We’ve been given the gifts of life and we need to give back, and we need to try and make the world better. There was a lot of anger that came out of 9/11 especially in the fire department. And I saw my subordinates and some of my peers, officer peers, they just wanted to kill everybody that was Muslim. They wanted to bomb the Afghanistan back to the Dark Ages, whatever. But there was also a group of people who said it’s hate that got us to this point, we need to respond with love because more hate is not going to help.
Brenda Berkman: And so they started to do things to try and help with Habitat for Humanity or after the hurricanes and down the Gulf or in Japan after their tremendous disaster, or after other terrorist attack like when the Boston Marathon bombing, or all the bombings in the UK and Europe. A lot of people did respond in a positive way. They set up schools to educate Afghan girls. There was just a lot of that that happened too. And so that’s what a lot of us have as a take away that we are going to use what time we have left to really honor those who were lost by doing this work.
Preet Bharara: Can you believe it’s been 18 years?
Brenda Berkman: Well, certain times of the year it seems like right now. It seems like it just happened. And then other times it seems like a million years ago. When all the testimony and stuff was going on down in congress about the 9/11 survivors getting medical care and monitoring, that raised a lot of feelings as well. So sometimes 9/11 is still very much with us. And it concerns me. It concerns me that how will we respond if there’s another attack? Will firefighters run into buildings the same way? I believe that they will although I hope that we have learned some lessons from 9/11. How will people who were affected by the attacks respond? Will they respond with vengeance and hatred or will they respond in ways that… good ways.
Preet Bharara: When I think about 18 years having gone by, it’s astonishing to me that there are so many people who were infants or were born after 9/11 some of whom can now vote, and my daughter was four months old on 9/11 and she’s now a voter, and people who were just born or born after 9/11 are becoming firefighters themselves. And they don’t have the experience of having lived through it, and all of us you know we talk about all the time. What would you want-
Brenda Berkman: And there’s no curriculum to teach it. In New York City there is no curriculum to teach 9/11.
Preet Bharara: Well, there’s the memorial and the museum, and you mentioned-
Brenda Berkman: Yeah, but you have to have a school group go there and that can be a problem especially if you live in the far reaches of Queens or something.
Preet Bharara: Why do you volunteer there and can give tours?
Brenda Berkman: A lot of it has to do with honoring the people who are lost and keeping their story front in people’s consciousness because there are so many people. We don’t get very many people from New York and we don’t get very many school groups.
Preet Bharara: Why do you think we don’t get so many people from New York?
Brenda Berkman: There’s a lot of people from New York who have never been back down to lower Manhattan.
Preet Bharara: Because it’s too raw.
Brenda Berkman: It’s too raw, but people I am telling you that if you… I think it helps people to come on one of our tours and re-engage by hearing a story and basically thinking back in a way that isn’t about… It’s going to happen like right now again. In thinking about all the good things and looking at lower Manhattan. And if that doesn’t show the resiliency of the human spirit, not just buildings, and beautiful memorial which is the most meaningful thing to me, but also the fact that life has returned. The schools, the residences, the businesses that were basically completely destroyed by the attack. All that stuff is back. And the people are back. They’re doing these positive things.
Brenda Berkman: So I want people when they go on my tour, I want them to honor the people, I want them to learn more about 9/11 because there’s an increasing number of people that don’t know anything about 9/11. I want them to be inspired by the people who have rebuilt their lives, and are trying to do good things in the world.
Preet Bharara: What’s your advice to people who are trying to seek true justice like you did when you try to become the first woman firefighter in the FDNY of how to persevere and get through it?
Brenda Berkman: It takes a village. Two things I say frequently, and one is that I don’t think people achieve social change no matter if it’s Martin Luther King or anyone, Gloria Steinem. Anybody that we regard as like the paragons of civil rights movements. Nobody achieves social change by themselves. You need support networks, you need lots of people doing lots of different things. We’re about to celebrate the 100th anniversary of suffrage. Women’s suffrage did not occur because Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others like Sojourner Truth stood up and said, “All right. Give women the vote.”
Brenda Berkman: People’s minds had to be changed, and it took thousands, millions of women and men all around the country to achieve that from taking a movement that was regarded as utterly ridiculous at a time where women were not even allowed to speak in public, and transforming that into a situation where we can have women as candidates, as president. That didn’t occur fast. It took 70 to 100 years depending on how you’re counting, a long time, decades before women even got the vote, and even then there was still a lot that needed to be done in terms of true access to the vote.
Brenda Berkman: That’s the second part. One is it takes a lot of people but the second thing is, and we need to work together. And the second thing is that it can take a while. So you can’t expect that everything is going to change overnight and be fine. You may move forward a little bit, then you move back again. But the point is we got to keep moving forward. And if we can’t talk to one another, if we can’t work together despite some differences that sometimes seem insurmountable but in the big scheme of things are really not insurmountable then we’re in trouble as a country. We’re in trouble as a country.
Brenda Berkman: It doesn’t have to be this way. It doesn’t have to be all this public vitriol and it doesn’t have to be all the hate that’s spewing out of the executive branch. And it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s been that way before. Joe McCarthy, civil rights movement where people were being killed and losing their jobs, and all kinds of terrible things were happening to them, and they persevered, and we owe it to them to persevere in the struggles that we have right now.
Brenda Berkman: The justice system is such an important part of that. We cannot be undermining the rule of law which is what is happening right now. It’s so scary to me both as a lawyer and a litigant, and someone whose life was changed by justice in a good way, not always the best way because no judge is going to be in the firehouse with you 24 hours a day. As imperfect as justice is, it was better than no justice. And we have to fight for that as a country. Every one of us.
Preet Bharara: Captain Brenda Berkman, thank you for your service, thank you for being on the show.
Brenda Berkman: Preet, thank you, man.
Preet Bharara: This was an honor.
Brenda Berkman: I admire your career enormously. So happier at my law school now.
Preet Bharara: Thanks so much.
Preet Bharara: The conversation continues for members of the Cafe Insider Community. In this week Stay Tuned bonus, Brenda Berkman tells me about the challenges of fire fighting in New York City and what life was like in the days after 9/11. And a little about her work with Monumental Women, an organization dedicated to placing the first statue honoring women’s history in Central Park. To hear the bonus and the exclusive weekly Cafe Insider podcast, go to cafe.com/insider.
Speaker 10: This is just in. You are looking at obviously a very disturbing live shot there. That is the World Trade Center and we have unconfirmed reports this morning that a plane has crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center.
Speaker 11: Something devastating is happening again. Unconfirmed reports that a plane has crashed into one of the towers.
Preet Bharara: So I’m recording today on the 18th anniversary of 9/11 and every anniversary is very difficult, and you can become overwhelmed by the tragedy of that day, and the terrible things that happened to so many people and to the country. For me some anniversaries seem especially poignant. If you are a baby born on or around September 11th like my daughter was, you become an adult on this anniversary.
Preet Bharara: Now, as I discussed with Brenda Berkman, lots and lots of people suffered on that day but perhaps no group more than the New York City Fire Department. They’re known here as New York’s bravest, and boy did they prove it that day. 343 people in the fire department lost on 9/11. And that’s maybe what makes it especially moving for so many people to see the children of people who died as firefighters on 9/11 themselves being sworn in to fight fires in the city that lost so much 18 years ago.
Preet Bharara: It’s not just the children who become firefighters or first responders of another variety who are inspiring. A former colleague of mine, Jonathan Leiken worked with me in the Southern District of New York. We overlapped early in the 2000s. Shortly before Jonathan began as an AUSA in 2001, his daughter was born. Here’s what his daughter Caleigh Leiken recently wrote on a blog:
Preet Bharara: “I was born in September 11, 2001 in New York City. That morning my mom, then a public defender at the Legal Aid Society and eight and a half months pregnant with me walked the five miles away from the burning twin towers in lower Manhattan to my parents’ apartment on the Upper West Side. She went into labor that afternoon. After a cab ride across Central Park with a police escort and lights and sirens, so my mom in labor can cross the barricades, I was born at 5:15 p.m. by emergency C-section at Mount Sinai Hospital.”
Preet Bharara: Caleigh goes on to say, “All my life people have reacted to the story of my birth with wonder especially when they hear about my mom’s journey from ground zero to the delivery room. I’ve known since I was little that although something terrible happened on the day I was born, my birth gave hope to my parents and the people around them. But until I visited the 9/11 memorial for the first time this summer, I didn’t fully comprehend that a hole both real and spiritual was blown into the Earth on the day I was born.”
Preet Bharara: “Visiting the 9/11 Memorial and Museum for the first time, I thought of my birthday as a tether across time connecting me to those who were lost that day. Walking through the museum, I felt a strong need to understand the stories of the people who were lost and how to share an honor those stories.” And so what Caleigh Leiken who turns 18 today decide to do? She has chosen to serve as an official ambassador for the 9/11 memorial, to bring the anniversary and stories about that date to her high school Shaker Heights High School in Ohio.
Preet Bharara: Caleigh writes, “As I enter my senior year, I will help to tell the story to my classmates, all of whom were born around September 2001. As we look ahead to graduation next spring, we must all take responsibility for understanding 9/11, learning from it, honoring the victims and the brave first responders and making the world a better place in their memory.” Happy birthday, Callie. I’ve always believed that 9/11 taught us some basic things. There is evil in the world, but there is also good. There is cowardice in the world, but also courage.
Preet Bharara: There is terrible tragedy, but also hope. And I’ll tell you sitting here 18 years on, I still believe those things to be true. And I think that these children of 9/11 if I can call them that helped to prove how much good there is in the world and how the future can be brighter than the past.
Preet Bharara: Well, that’s it for this episode of Stay Tuned. Thanks, again, to my guest, Captain Brenda Berkman. If you like what we do, rate and review the show on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. Every positive review helps new listeners find the show. Send me your questions about news, politics, and justice. You can tweet them to me at Preet Bharara with the hashtag Ask Preet, or you can call and leave me a message at 669-247-7338. That’s 669-24-PREET. Or you can send an email to [email protected]
Preet Bharara: Stay Tuned is presented by CAFE. The executive producer is Tamara Sepper. The senior producer is Aaron Dalton. And the CAFE team is Carla Pierini, Julia Doyle, Calvin Lord, David Kurlander and Geoff Isenman. Our music is by Andrew Dost. I’m Preet Bharara. Stay tuned.