Mother Speaks About Superior Firefighter Son’s Suicide; Dept. Holds New Support Training
SUPERIOR, Wis. – Cheryl Sutton, the mother of Erik Sutton — a retired Superior fire battalion chief – broke her silence Thursday about her son’s suicide to FOX 21’s Dan Hanger.
This, as the Superior Fire Department – for the first time – takes on special mental health training to help prevent another tragedy involving one of their own.
“Each step of his career, it was like, wow, this kid has made it. This is great. This is fantastic. But underlying it, we had no clue what was going on,” said Cheryl Sutton, Erik’s mother.
“Whenever that bell goes off, you put the personal stuff aside and you go on the call — and sometimes you have to deal with some pretty traumatic things,” said Suzi Olson, captain of the Superior Fire Department and president of the Superior Firefighters Local 74.
Olson says the old days of firefighting are long gone with traumatic medical calls becoming far too common.
“Just in my 17 years here, the job has changed significantly and I’m dealing with things now I never thought I would have to deal with as a firefighter,” Olson said.
Olson says the added life-and-death stresses of the job are pushing too many firefighters into a dark path.
“It’s becoming a problem on a national level where we have more freighters passing away from suicide than in the line of duty,” Olson said.
National statistics show firefighter suicides are on the rise in the U.S., exceeding 100 deaths every year since 2014.
In 2018, one of those deaths was retired Superior Battalion Chief Erik Sutton.
“As his family — didn’t have a clue. He was a hell of an actor,” Erik’s mother Cheryl said to a group of Superior firefighters and area first responders at the Northland’s first-ever behavior and mental health training from the International Association of Fire Fighters on Thursday.
Cheryl says Erik always wanted to be a firefighter since he was a young kid, and he always had a heart for helping others — even up until his death at 46 years old.
“He was tall, good looking, easy to get along with, fantastic sense of humor, always a big smile on his face, first one to help if anybody to need help,” Cheryl said.
But things began to change as all types of stressful medical calls became the norm for the fire department.
“Just really, really horrific — lots of death. And he didn’t know how to deal with it, how to process it — and so he buried it,” Cheryl said.
Burying it, Cheryl said, meant getting off the rig and taking a promotion as battalion chief.
But when his demons still ate away inside, he retired from the department after 20 years of service hoping for relief — relief that never came and only got worse after Erik’s father took his own life while battling a debilitating disease.
“He had Parkinson’s. He just couldn’t deal with being disabled anymore,” Cheryl said. “I think Erik blamed himself. He should have been able to stop it.”
Erik, their only child, would end his life just three months later.
“I didn’t see anything. That’s probably the hardest thing, but when I hear now from his co-workers that he sometimes was isolating himself, that just wasn’t Erik,” Erik said.
“When you lose someone to suicide that you work so closely with and you see all the time, you can’t help but kind of wonder what did we miss — what could we have done different,” said Superior Fire Capt. Lindzi Campbell-Rorvick.
Campbell-Rorvick worked side by side with Erik throughout his career, and is part of the reason the special two-day support training was set up.
“If we can do anything to honor Erik’s memory, it’s that we can put this class on and help other people that might need help and create that safety net to catch people before they fall too far,” Campbell-Rorvick said.
And that’s exactly how Cheryl is choosing to keep Erik’s memory alive while keeping her spirit alive as well.
“I would have preferred he was a poster child for something else right now, but if his death can save somebody else’s by training that’s going on right now, then I’ll be grateful,” Campbell-Rorvick said.
The $7,500 two-day training with the International Association of Firefighters was paid in part by the support of the city of Superior, Essentia Health, Superior Water Light & Power and WITC.