Brenda Berkman 59, New York City (via Richfield)
She rushed in to help, as she had always done since winning her landmark discrimination suit to join the New York City Fire Department in 1982. But what Brenda Berkman remembers most is feeling helpless. It was her day off, so the Richfield native did not have her breathing apparatus or her radio. She went in anyway. "There wasn't a lot I could do," she said, "other than look through the top of the rubble." Chaotic and unimaginable are the words she uses for that day. After that, the days defied easy labels. Weeks of funerals. Months of sorting debris for "pieces of somebody's loved one." Years of lingering medical damage. "Things were said to us like, 'It's safe to take off your respirators now.' And that probably wasn't true."
• • •
She won't talk about her health now, or answer certain questions about the department -- an evasiveness learned from her study of law. But it belies her New Yorker bluntness, her Minnesota gift of gab.
Those traits surface when she leads ground zero tours, or when she talks about being the department's first female firefighter to Lower East Side kindergartners in a classroom named for her.
"We lost so many good people that day, and then many more after that." She stayed on to help fill that gap. But tight budgets five years later made senior people hard to afford. She retired as a captain in 2006, right after a PBS documentary on her, but mostly timed to 9/11's fifth anniversary.
She became a church deacon and "Meals on Heels" chef at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian in Manhattan. She joined the St. Olaf College alumni board, which gets her home to see Mom. Despite the best efforts of Catherine Berkman, 85, and St. Olaf's staff, "I didn't really consider myself a very spiritual person prior to 9/11," she admits.
Nor was she a creative person, until she enrolled in the Art Students League. Now her lithographs sell online. She avoided 9/11 images until this summer, when she assembled a 10th anniversary exhibit with other artists. The centerpiece is her imagined self portrait from that day. In it, the hero's hands are raised over her head in despair.