Joe Battista lived the life of a hero — and it cost him his mind.
The retired FDNY firefighter who spent months at Ground Zero after the 9/11 attacks died in obscurity at a Florida mental hospital suffering from a crippling depression and posttraumatic stress disorder, his family said.
Battista’s long struggle with PTSD ended April 5, when he choked to death on some food while being cared for at the institution. He was 63.
Yet in life, and now in death, the FDNY has refused to grant Battista World Trade Center-related disability benefits — a move his grieving family members call “an outrage.”
FDNY firefighter killed by 9/11-linked cancer honored with plaque
“We’ve been fighting with them for years,” Joe Ciacco, Battista’s cousin, said at the retired smoke-eater’s wake in the Bronx on Friday night, where a handful of mourners stopped by to pay respects.
“The Fire Department has fought us tooth and nail.”
After responding to 9/11, Battista spent 3 1/2 months at Ground Zero, Ciacco said. He was then reassigned to the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, where he stood by a conveyor belt and sifted through debris for human remains.
Battista, who before joining the FDNY had been a cop for two years, became a firefighter in 1982. He spent most of his career at Engine 90 in Morris Park, the Bronx, and responded to the Happy Land social club fire in 1990, where an arsonist with a grudge set fire to the illegal nightspot, killing 87 people.
FDNY hero who evacuated hundreds on 9/11 dies of cancer at 45
At Happy Land, Battista saw horrors that he could never forget, his cousin said.
“He would still break down when he would talk about it,” Ciacco remembered. “He said they didn’t have enough body bags to take care of the 87 kids.”
Retired colleagues said Battista scored well on his FDNY entrance exams, so he had his choice of firehouses. He chose Engine 90 because it was close to his mother’s house.
“Joe was a Bronx guy who stayed in the old neighborhood,” said retired Firefighter Brian Wynne, 61, who served in Engine 72 in Throgs Neck, the Bronx. “He was a throwback to an earlier time in New York.”
FDNY lieutenant dies of 9/11-related cancer months after retiring
Battista was the union delegate for Engine 90 and assisted in the recovery efforts in Hurricane Katrina-ravaged New Orleans in 2005.
But very few co-workers knew what became of him after he retired in 2007 and moved to Florida.
“I didn’t know he was institutionalized,” said one firefighter at Battista’s funeral at St. Dominic’s Catholic Church.
The casket of retired FDNY firefighter Joe Battistas is taken away during his funeral at St. Dominc’s Church in the Bronx on Saturday.
(Gregg Vigliotti/For New York Daily News)
After becoming estranged from his wife and two children, Battista was involuntarily hospitalized in 2012 and 2013 because of suicidal thoughts and depression.
9/11 responders’ health treatment threatened by Trump budget plan
He was in and out of mental hospitals ever since. Through it all, doctors repeatedly linked his insomnia, depression and PTSD to what he experienced on 9/11, according to the lawsuit.
Beginning in 2013, Battista began petitioning the FDNY for World Trade Center disability retirement benefits, which would make his pension tax-free.
The FDNY denied his request at least four times, according to a lawsuit filed by Battista’s attorney calling on a judge to overturn the department’s decision.
In its findings, the FDNY’s medical board said Battista suffered from a form of early-onset dementia even though several psychiatrists diagnosed the retired firefighter with PTSD that could be linked to his work history.
“(They) are directly related to Mr. Battista’s services as a NYC firefighter during the 9/11 terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center,” Dr. Hector Corzo wrote in one finding in 2014.
Battista never received the World Trade Center benefits his family had hoped he would get.
Firefighters salute Joe Battista during his funeral on Saturday.
(Gregg Vigliotti/For New York Daily News)
Adding insult to injury, the FDNY declined to give Battista a WTC honors funeral because his choking “is not a covered WTC cause of death,” the FDNY said in a letter to Battista’s family.
“The FDNY (is) playing games and won’t take responsibility right up to today,” Ciacco said.
Battista had two funerals — one in Sarasota, Fla., put on by the local fire department and the other in the Bronx — and received funeral honors fitting a retired firefighter.
A color guard and several local fire companies attended the service at St. Dominic’s. Pallbearers brought out Battista’s casket to the sound of bagpipes.
Attorney Jeffrey Goldberg filed a lawsuit for Battista’s 9/11 benefits in March. A judge was set to hear the case in May, although the lawsuit could be rendered moot by Battista’s death, Goldberg said.
“The benefits was more about the recognition than the finances,” Goldberg said. “It really would have meant something to him and his family.”
The FDNY declined to comment on Battista’s fight for World Trade Center benefits, claiming it does not disclose the medical records of its members.
Recovery efforts proceed at Ground Zero after the 9/11 terror attacks.
(Keivom, James/New York Daily News)
An FDNY source with knowledge of the case said that the department follows strict federal guidelines before it can award WTC benefits — guidelines that are outlined in the Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act.
The Victim Compensation Fund mostly covers physical issues such as cancer and respiratory ailments.
Battista received Zadroga compensation in August for chronic pulmonary disease and acid reflux he suffered that were linked to 9/11, relatives said.
At the wake, Wynne said he couldn’t believe Battista didn’t get the disability compensation he wanted.
“He had an astute understanding of fire union politics,” said Wynne.
“Who gets these benefits and who doesn’t is a mystery,” said Wynne while looking over Battista’s coffin. “It’s a mystery of faith.”