02/05/2013 06:30 pm ET Updated Apr 07, 2013

A Real Hero

Lt. Marty Fullam, FDNY veteran and one of the legion of heroes who rushed to the burning wrecks of the World Trade Center when everyone else was running away, has died. I wrote about Marty and his brother David, also a FDNY veteran, in City of Dust, and he played a central role in Dr. Sanjay Gupta's Terror in the Dust documentary in 2011.

Marty, father of three young girls, and devoted husband of Trisha, was one of those soft-spoken determined kind of guys who avoided the spotlight whenever possible. I had to talk him into sharing his story of rounding up his Staten Island FDNY colleagues to drive down to the ferry terminal on that morning. They marched up Broadway to the blackened hulks and worked there on and off for months.

A few years after 9/11 Marty came down with a severe lung ailment that required a lung transplant. When the new lung started to fail, he prepared himself to go for another transplant. Throughout the long ordeal, he never gave up hope, never succumbed to bitterness, never lost sight of what was truly important to him -- his wife and three daughters and the home they made for themselves in Staten Island.

Here's the thing about this story. Marty's brother David, also a FDNY lieutenant, had put in his own time down at ground zero and walked away whole. Two brothers, genetically as similar as any brothers can be, with the same job, the same responsibility, and the same exposure to the trade center dust, yet two very different outcomes.

Dr. David Prezant, FDNY's chief medical officer, took special care of Marty Fullam, watching over him with all the special attention of a brother. It wasn't enough. Prezant and the many medical studies of firefighters he has done since 9/11 have shown the clear danger of prolonged exposure to the dust. But he can't explain why one brother got so sick, while the other didn't.

Marty died a day before the administrator of the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, Sheila Birnbaum, announced that two years after the Zadroga law was passed by Congress, she was ready to start making the first round of payments to 15 first responders with respiratory problems. Behind those 15 stand some 16,000 applications for financial help, many of them filed by firefighters like the Fullams who rushed to ground zero and never were the same.

I got to spend time with both Marty and David Fullam and I saw how they were haunted by the way fate had treated each of them. What I wrote in City of Dust about the Fullams was that they expressed in an extreme way what all of us who lived and worked in New York felt about 9/11 -- "why him and not me? Why me and not him?" I don't know that we'll ever have a satisfactory answer to such questions, but there's no doubt that I will never forget the quiet heroism of the Fullams, real New Yorkers.