BURLINGTON — Ryan Fortini was a 24-year-old New York State Police trooper when he was dispatched to Ground Zero after planes crashed into the World Trade Center. He spent weeks on the search and recovery mission, patrolling Canal Street and carrying out the solemn task of escorting mourners to a temporary morgue.
That call to duty would ultimately claim his life. On New Year’s Day, he died of cancer linked to exposure to the toxic air that hung over Manhattan for months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He was 42, the latest casualty of that tragic morning.
“Unfortunately we are still battling the events of that day,” New York State Police Superintendent Keith Corlett said at Fortini’s funeral here Wednesday.
Nearly 700 people came to Fortini’s hometown to pay their respects, including hundreds of police officers who had come from New York and across the country in a stirring display of gratitude and respect for a man friends and relatives recalled as selfless, kind, passionate, and a bit mischievous.
As the Rev. James Mahoney stood at the altar in St. Margaret Church, he described Fortini as a fearless officer who was always there for other people. He paused, scanned the pews packed with uniformed men and women, and quipped, “I haven’t felt so protected in my entire life.”
That’s exactly what Fortini would have wanted, because he lived and worked to make people feel safe, Corlett said in a tribute.
“I think it’s important for all of us to remember that although his illness robbed us way too soon of this vivacious and selfless man, through all his treatments and stresses and hardships it could not take away Ryan’s kindness or his profound desire to help others,” he said.
Even after Fortini was diagnosed with cancer and forced to retire in 2015 after 16 years on the force, he made it his mission to help others, Corlett said. He reached out to other responders at Ground Zero to enroll in the World Trade Center Health Program and make sure they received screenings for illnesses and treatment.
He volunteered on housing projects for cancer patients and continued to do work for a children’s charity. He was active on social media, often posting about the funerals of other officers. Fortini was the 10th member of the New York State Police to die from an illness related to the Sept. 11 attacks.
In September, he posted a photograph on Facebook of the crater-sized hole where the World Trade Center towers once stood.
“Just in case you forgot, this was Ground Zero on 09-11-2001 and You promised that you would never forget,” he wrote.
On Wednesday, Corlett said the New York State Police would never forget Fortini and would always be there for his family.
“Thank you for your service and your sacrifice,” Corlett said.
As of September, 241 members of the New York City police department had died of illnesses related to Sept. 11. Two hundred and sixteen city firefighters have died, according to the Uniformed Firefighters Association.
In an interview earlier this week, Fortini’s sister, Joy Wilson, said her brother had beautiful dimples and a devilish sense of humor. He had always wanted to be a police officer, she said, joking that he had made “friends” with local police as a teenager while driving around town too fast in a red Jeep Wrangler he had worked several jobs to buy.
He graduated from Burlington High School in 1995 and enlisted in the Army National Guard when he was 17. He served for six years and later graduated from the University of Massachusetts Lowell. He began his career with the New York State Police in November 1998 and in 2005 was part of a team that helped recovery efforts in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Before he retired, he worked as an investigator assigned to a narcotics enforcement team.
Wilson said her brother was heartbroken that he had to retire but never had any regrets about the work he had done, even though his time at Ground Zero cost him his life.
Fortini’s older brother, Matthew, said his brother described his experience at Ground Zero as “a dark couple of weeks” and talked about the smell and the dust. But “he would do it all over again,” Matthew said, because that’s the way he was. He got the call and he went.
Fortini’s brother and sister said he would have loved his own funeral, which drew officers from Vermont, Connecticut, and as far away as California.
A motorcycle escort led Fortini’s fiance, Caitlin; his parents, Edwin and Doreen Fortini; his siblings; and other relatives to the church. The New York State Police Pipes and Drums band played as an honor guard stood outside. Fortini’s coffin was draped in the American flag.
As he left the church to join the funeral procession, Massachusetts State Police Colonel Christopher Mason said it was important for officers to support Fortini’s family and reaffirm “the vow we made shortly after 9/11 to never forget.”
Corlett, who was among those who rushed to Ground Zero after the attack, recalled that “we were told that the air was safe, and it was not.”
“Unfortunately more and more of us are getting sick, and we’re going to lose a lot more people,” he said. “And it’s very sad.”