JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. —
The sounds of cars honking, the wind whistling between the towering buildings of the city, September 11, 2001 was like any other day for an 11-year-old Saint Thomas Choir School chorister.
The school choir was practicing the familiar melody of Handel’s Messiah for Sunday Mass when he noticed something was off. He could hear teachers’ footsteps racing through the stairways outside of class. One came in and announced that class was canceled.
Now U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. John Burdick, 87th Logistics Readiness Squadron assistant installation deployment officer, said eventually the teachers explained that the twin towers had been hit. All the students were separated by class, his class of six was directed to the two-story library with windows overlooking the fire station.
“It was a particular shock to me because my father, at the time, was the musical director at Trinity Church on Wall Street which is a stone’s throw away from the towers and would later be referred to as ground zero,” said Burdick. “I was worried. All I could do was wait to hear from him.”
At a young age, Burdick didn’t fully understand the extent of the devastation that was happening. The students were only given one instruction that day: to wait. As worried as Burdick was about his father, Owen, he had his friends there to keep him calm and his mind at ease.
“I saw my friend, Daniel Burch, turn around with a shocked look on his face,” said Burdick. “The kind of look that makes you turn in the direction he’s looking. There, standing on the top steps about 15 feet away toward the library was… well, I didn’t recognize the person. He looked like Hamlet’s father, just this ghostly vision, completely white from head to toe. Every hair follicle was covered in dust. Although it took me a second, I finally realized it was my father.”
Whether from exhaustion or relief, Burdick’s father collapsed.
Burdick said he had to hug his father or touch him in any way to see if he was even real. He was so overwhelmed he wasn’t sure if any of it was actually happening.
Burdick ran to catch his father as he fell to his knees. With the clarity that comes with a memory of a life-changing moment, Burdick can picture the Poland Spring bottle his father had been carrying, hitting the floor beside him. Owen had been wetting a cloth to filter out the soot and penetrating fumes.
“I wish I had some profound, philosophical realization, but I think that takes time,” said Burdick. “It was really in hindsight that you get the context. [What I felt] being a young child in what seemed to be a sort of indestructible modern Rome, was vulnerability to a real sense of safety we had taken for granted up until that point.”
Once he was sure that his son was okay and safe, Owen dusted himself off and ran back to help anyone who needed it.
Watching his father run back to ground zero, Burdick’s eyes scanned over the fire station. He said he remembered thinking about how he had gotten to know the firefighters there due to him being the mischievous child that he was. He was caught one day playing with fire in the library and was sent over to the station for a lesson on fire safety.
“It wasn’t on the best note that I met [the firefighters],” said Burdick. “But they certainly got to know me and unfortunately on that tragic day, [some] of them lost their lives.”
Everyone was effected on the unforgettable day. In one way or another, whether big or small, something changed in every American’s life. New Yorkers came together like never before, helping one another out with anything that was needed in the days to come after the attack.
As life carried on, Burdick returned to school at Saint Thomas Choir School, but it was bittersweet.
“We had a wonderful role to play,” said Burdick. “President Busch, Tony Blair, President Bill Clinton, royalty from all over the world and most importantly the victims of 9/11 would come to our church on the days and weeks that followed and certainly on the anniversary just to hear us sing and try to get a little peace from the memories and experience [9/11] left with them. It was touching, and I was honored to be able to give that much.”
Burdick said it is important to him to remember the heroic actions and the lessons learned that ultimately drove him to join the Air Force.
“We were one school, we were one city, we are one country and we do a great justice to the sacrifice of those men and women by praising their actions,” said Burdick.
Even after 17 years, Burdick can still remember the events of that day as if it was still fresh in his mind. Instead of always remembering the day as a sad day, Burdick planned an uplifting moment to give to others.
“I decided when promoting to first lieutenant that [the school library] would be a fitting place to do the promotion and invite my family and father most importantly,” said Burdick. “It was a great disguise to also pop the question to who would be my future wife. That’s [helped me] keep a strong relationship with that school, that room, that city and those people.”