A Firefighter's Suicide, and the Latent Toll of 9/11

NY Times - September 11, 2019

by Corey Kilgannon

As a student at Bowdoin College, Matt Byrne hardly seemed like a candidate for the New York City Fire Department.

But he became one of many applicants after the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, 18 years ago today.

By 2006, he was a nozzleman on the fire hose in Engine 9 in Chinatown, pushing him close to the action, and to death.

The devastation of the 2001 attacks on the Fire Department is well known, from its 343 members killed that day to the psychological trauma and medical ailments sustained during recovery efforts at ground zero.

But harrowing conditions for firefighters, of course, did not end with the attacks. In 2007, Mr. Byrne fought the seven-alarm fire at the Deutsche Bank building, which killed two firefighters and injured more than 100 others.

Then there were the two children who “died in his arms” after being run over in Chinatown, said his father, Ed Byrne, a Long Island lawyer who has written a memoir about his son, titled “In Whom I Am Well Pleased.”

These and other experiences on the job left Mr. Byrne with post-traumatic stress disorder and severe depression.

“The term firefighter is a misnomer,” the father said. “He was fine with fire, but it was the constant death that got to him.”

Also, working odd shifts and night tours, “he would come home some mornings all wired and start drinking beer,” Mr. Byrne recalled.

After taking painkillers for a knee injury, the younger Mr. Byrne developed an opioid addiction that included stints at rehab clinics and psychiatric wards.

Finally, Mr. Byrne decided to leave the department in March 2014. Then he lost his longtime job as a Jones Beach lifeguard and was charged with driving while intoxicated. That August, he died by suicide at age 34.

“He tried keeping all the emotion down, but in the end, he just couldn’t handle it,” his father said.

Michael Schreiber, a health and safety officer for the firefighters union, said the department’s counseling services unit expanded after 2001 to provide services for mental health and addiction issues, and suicide prevention.

As a firefighter, Mr. Schreiber said, “If your head is not in the game, you can get yourself or others killed.”

“You don’t have to have been a responder on 9/11 to have experienced horrific things on a regular basis,” he said. “You could be laughing with the guys in the firehouse kitchen and minutes later be trapped on the floor above a fire with no way out.”

Events commemorating Sept. 11

*The 9/11 Memorial & Museum is holding a commemoration ceremony at 8:40 a.m. at the 9/11 Memorial Plaza in Lower Manhattan.

*The Tribute in Light will begin shortly after 7 p.m. at the 9/11 Memorial, whose plaza will be open to the public from 3 p.m. to midnight.

*At 8:46 a.m., St. Paul’s Chapel at Broadway and Fulton Street will ring the Bell of Hope given to the city by London after the attacks.

*The time-lapse film “2001” will be shown from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. free of charge at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in Morningside Heights.