William Butler, a longtime resident of Kings Park and a firefighter for 33 years, died Saturday of a lung disease which his family said he contracted while working recovery at Ground Zero in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. He was 74.
"He was an unselfish individual," said his wife, Peggy. "He would drop everything for someone he loved. It was a blessing to be married to him for 53 years."
Born in 1939 and raised in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, Butler sold his first car, a 1954 Chevrolet, to pay for Peggy's engagement ring. The pair married in November 1960. Shortly after, they set off for a honeymoon at Lake George. "A ghost town," Peggy Butler said. "But, we were there with each other -- and so, we were happy."
In 1962, Butler began a career of service as a firefighter for Engine 201 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. During the next 30 years, Butler rose from fireman to lieutenant and then captain. Following his retirement in 1994, he served as fire marshal for the Town of Smithtown. He also worked in security for the Smithtown Central School District.
"He couldn't sit still," said his son, Bill Butler Jr. "He was a fireman's fireman. He never thought of himself."
Butler's selflessness and resolve were never on greater display than in the wake of 9/11, during which his second son, Thomas, 37 -- also a member of the FDNY -- died in the line of duty.
At first, Butler stayed at home, grieving with his family. Then, in November 2001, he noticed the numbers of workers assisting in rescue and recovery at Ground Zero had dwindled. And so, every day for the next eight months, Butler traveled to the site and dug, hoping to find his son, or the son or daughter of someone like himself.
"He felt the need to go down there, to be there, and to be digging," said Bill Butler Jr. "But he wasn't just there for Thomas. He was there for all the other people. That's what firemen do."
Butler never missed a day at Ground Zero. Each evening, he was relieved by his third son, Stephen, a Port Authority police officer, who grabbed a shovel and dug through the night. They devised a plan should they ever recover Thomas' body. "Together," Bill Butler Jr. said, "they had Ground Zero covered 24 hours a day, seven days a week."
But they never found Thomas. In June of 2002, Butler and Stephen stopped digging.
Then, in 2004, Butler reported that he was having trouble breathing. Doctors discovered there was concrete and glass dust in his lungs. He was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, a disease that inhibited his ability to breathe, grounded him at home and eventually killed him, his family said.
"There is no doubt this was a 9/11-related death," said Bill Butler Jr., reiterating the diagnosis of his father's doctor. "He would not have had this disease otherwise."
"He said he would never change what he did," Peggy Butler said. "What would have been the alternative? Nobody was told that there was anything wrong down there. Even if there was, even if he had known, it wouldn't have mattered. He would have gone."
Butler died Saturday at St. Catherine of Siena Medical Center in Smithtown.
He also is survived by his daughter, Eileen Christiano; and seven grandchildren, all of Kings Park.
A funeral Mass will be held at St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church in Kings Park at 10:30 a.m. Thursday. Burial will follow at Northport Rural Cemetery, East Northport.