From a young age, Patrick D. Byrne enjoyed helping others. That carried over into his adult life, as he became a firefighter and described his job as “fighting fires, saving lives.”
Nearly 20 years ago, Byrne, 39, was doing his job on a September day that would be unlike any other in the history of this country. Although he was one of 343 firefighters who lost his life on Sept. 11, 2001, the story of his selflessness and heroism in the face of the most challenging of conditions live on through the memories of family, friends and fellow firefighters.
Byrne’s willingness to risk his life on that fateful day didn’t surprise his older sister, Joanne Finn, a resident of Crossville.
“Patrick had a passion for what he did,” Finn said. “He didn’t think of himself at any time. He was thinking of those he could save.”
Finn learned her brother wasn’t scheduled to work on 9/11 but had taken the shift for a married firefighter from his station who needed the day off. He and six other firefighters were among the first to arrive on the scene. Carrying hoses, axes and picks, they started the climb up to the 73rd floor of the North Tower, where people were trapped by flames. At some point, the tower collapsed. The seven men from Ladder 101were presumably buried beneath the rubble, none of their remains ever recovered.
Finn didn’t miss any of the annual 9/11 memorial services at the World Trade Center site until last year, when the pandemic forced a cancellation. Helping her get through a somber day each year has been the love and support shown by members of her brother’s firehouse.
“They’ll feed us breakfast, give us a shirt and take us by bus to the memorial,” Finn said. “The Redhook firehouse goes all out for the families of the seven who died that day. This year, being the 20th, they’re making us special shirts.”
In the summer of 2002, Finn was among the firefighter families given a trip to Cape Cod. She recalled sitting next to a pilot at the Boston airport who told her he was scheduled to be on the first plane that hit the towers but was moved to another flight. He said he saw the hijackers waiting on the flight and handing out candy to the children who would be on the plane.
“He couldn’t believe the heartlessness of the terrorists,” Finn said. “They didn’t care about any of the people on the plane.”
The support of the firefighter brotherhood was especially poignant in November 2001, when a memorial service was held for Byrne in his hometown of Staten Island.
“Mayor Rudy Giuliani was there and presented a flag to my mom and dad,” Finn said. “Firefighters and cops were lined up on the streets. They came from everywhere and gave such respect. It was so incredible to see the brotherhood. It was so emotional.”
The Works Trade Center was familiar to Finn, who had had worked on nearby Wall Street for nine years. She was working for an oral surgeon in Oak Ridge in 2001.
Finn had just walked out of surgery when one of the doctors told her a plane had crashed into one of the towers. She turned on the news and saw it was far worse than she imagined. Finn called her brother but was unable to reach him. With all flights grounded, she drove to the site and encountered a smoldering scene with flying paper and debris. She said the smell was awful. Helping her search for Byrne were two of her brothers, one a policeman, the other a doctor. Unable to locate him, Finn left the site to be with her family and hopefully receive news her brother had somehow been found alive, perhaps in one of the shops on the ground floor. Not hearing anything, she headed back to Tennessee.
Byrne was the youngest of nine children. Finn said he was a sweet boy who loved children. He studied accounting for two years at Staten Island Community School, Sunnyside but decided it wasn’t for him.
“Sitting in a chair and being confined to a chair, it wasn’t him,” said his mother, Anne.
Instead, he started his own roofing company in the early ‘80s and expanded to carpentry, tile and concrete work. His mother said you could drive all over Staten Island and see his roofs, windows, decks and sidewalks.
In 1985, Byrne took and passed the police exam, seemingly poised to follow his father, who had served on the force in New York City for 34 years. Discouraged by his father to become a policeman due to the danger of the work, Byrne took the firefighter exam and enrolled in the Fire Academy. He graduated in 1994 and was assigned to Ladder 101, in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
His fire captain, Thomas Giordano, said Byrne was an excellent firefighter who knew his job. “He was always the first one to help the other guys,” he said.
Anne said her son was her light and laughter who always used to say something to make you laugh. “He was well loved and is sorely missed.”
Byrne also made his mark in softball, both playing and maintaining the field. Longtime friend Christopher Walsh said he was one of the better hitters in the league and possessed an outstanding throwing arm. Byrne also volunteered to mow the grass and keep up the field.
“Whatever the league needed he did,” Walsh said. “Anything that had to be done to that field, you could always count on Patrick to be there. He loved it.”
Finn’s husband, John, described Byrne as a nice, young man who was clean cut and nice looking who took their youngest son to the Bronx Zoo and took him to the barber for a “New York City haircut” — a buzzcut.
Finn said the loss of her brother was bad at the moment. Although it will never be the same, she added, time changes it to tolerable.
That’s not the only heartache she’s endured.
The Finns’ 25-year-old son, Christopher, died in 2016, and their home was destroyed by a fire caused by a faulty refrigerator compressor in 2013; they built a new home at the same location. Through it all, her faith remains strong.
“If you didn’t have Jesus Christ as your savior, there’s no way you could proceed in this life,” Finn said. “Jesus is peace. This is the only way you can get through something like this.”
Finn said Byrne absolutely loved being a firefighter. His mother, who lives on Staten Island, echoed those sentiments.
“He enjoyed his work as a firefighter and was proud of his abilities,” she said. “Whenever a family member asked him what he was doing at the firehouse, he’d reply, ‘Fighting fires, saving lives.’ It was tongue-in-cheek, really. But that’s what they do, isn’t it?”