Growing concern over 9/11 first responders' mental health

As part of the NYPD Highway Patrol 15 years ago, Anthony Flammia, then 38,  was one of the thousands of responders who descended on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11.

“I saw the horror of people jumping out of the building,” he said. “The smoke, I remember smelling the smoke and the jet fuel.”

In 2007, symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, emerged when he responded to a house fire.

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Anthony Flammia

CBS News

“I remember pulling up in front of the house on the wrong side of the road,” Flammia said. “From that point on, I don’t remember what happened. I blacked out.”

Flammia’s police career was over. The PTSD triggered blackouts where he lost track of time. Often, just smelling smoke caused flashbacks.

He said he couldn’t eat barbecue because the smell reminded him of 9/11.

Flammia also started to have memory problems.

“My short-term memory is almost gone,” he said. “I can’t even remember phone numbers. I can’t remember, sometimes, my kid’s birthday or my wife’s birthday”

In a study of 813 first responders, 12.8 percent had cognitive impairment. Responders like Flammia, with a diagnosis of PTSD with flashbacks, were three times as likely to have impairment. The average age of the group was just 53.

“It is a progressive disease, so what you can expect is that people that have it now, that have the progressive form, will start to experience worse and worse outcomes,” said Sean Clouston, a professor at Stony Brook Hospital who led the study.

Flammia told CBS News that he is comfortable sharing his memories of 9/11 and it has been an important part of his PTSD therapy. He said that he hopes going public can help convince colleagues who are hurting to admit they have a problem too, and seek help.

  • Jonathan LaPook

    Dr. Jonathan LaPook is the chief medical correspondent for the CBS Evening News. Follow him on Twitter at @DrLaPook