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Patrick Byrne, an operating engineer with the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150.
Patrick Byrne, an operating engineer with the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

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Patrick Byrne: He lost a leg — but not his love for working with heavy machinery

Despite his accident, the operating engineer’s co-workers “don’t look at me as a person that has a physical disability. They look at me as one of their brothers.”

Anyone who says there are no second acts in life has never met Patrick Byrne.

The first act for the heavy machine operator with the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150 ended abruptly after suffering a disability due to an accident on the job more than a quarter-century ago. The son of Irish immigrants, Byrne grew up in Ireland before returning to his native Chicago in the early ’80s. He eventually landed a gig manning bulldozers and other equipment for a local construction company (“every boy’s dream job,” he says with a thick Irish brogue).

But while attempting to stop traffic at a construction site in the fall of 1992, Byrne was struck by a car and pinned against a massive tractor loader. The impact of the crash instantly severed his right leg, broke his pelvis in four places, damaged his stomach and caused him to slip into a coma.

It took 21 days for him to wake up.

“It was a miracle that I lived to see another day,” said Byrne, now 54. “I guess the good man above decided he didn’t want me up there with him yet.”

Byrne, of Jefferson Park, was lucky to live, but he’d lost his leg from the waist down, his non-union job and his girlfriend, and doctors told him he’d never work in construction again. He sunk into a deep depression for at least six months.

His attitude improved after being transferred from Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC), which has since been renamed the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab. Byrne liked the facility so much that he ended up getting hired there as a sports coordinator. Sports became an unexpected source of joy as well, as he discovered that he could still successfully golf on one leg and play an adaptive form of hockey while sitting on sleds.

“I wasn’t really into sports before the accident,” Byrne said.

He founded a Blackhawks-sponsored RIC sled hockey team in 1998, and his success on the ice reached its apex during the 2002 Paralympic Games in Salt Lake City as a member of the gold-medal-winning team. In 2012, Byrne was inducted into the Illinois Hockey Hall of Fame for his importance in the sled hockey world.

Yearning to operate machinery

Through it all, Byrne yearned to return to his first love of operating heavy machinery. That’s why he took a gamble in 2014 and interviewed with the IUOE Local 150 when he heard it was hiring.

“What can I say? I always loved heavy equipment. There was something about those diesel engines and the power of these machines and what you can do with them,” he said.

Local 150 business manager Jim Sweeney looked at Byrne’s resume and was impressed. “‘You can run all of these machines?’” he asked, Byrne recalls. “‘Yes, sir I can,’” Byrne replied. One phone call later, Byrne was sent for training. When he hobbled on crutches to the site, some assumed he was trying to take an office job. But Byrne climbed into the heavy machinery and proved them wrong — operating bulldozers, loaders and excavators with skill, despite his disability.

“Now they don’t look at me as a person that has a physical disability. They look at me as one of their brothers,” he said.

Patrick Byrne, working on a job site near O’Hare Airport
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Six years later, Byrne’s life is better than ever. He’s married with three kids, still plays golf, volunteers at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab and is still deep into his second act as a construction worker. He works for Walsh Construction, digging sewer and water lines for the O’Hare Expansion project. He says he’s thankful for every moment of it.

“I never thought I’d go back to operating again — as much as I wanted it down deep inside. To think, I’d have this opportunity in life to be with the best of them out there right now and doing a job that I always wanted to do, well …”

Byrne’s voice shakes with emotion and trails off.

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