Thousands of runners, many dressed in heavy firefighter gear, passed through the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel from Brooklyn to Manhattan on a crisp Sunday morning for the 20th annual Tunnel to Towers 5K Run and Walk to honor the 343 FDNY firefighters who died while responding to the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.
The event retraces the steps of FDNY firefighter Stephen Siller, who ran through the nearly two-mile long tunnel with 60 pounds of gear on his back 20 years ago to help with the rescue at Ground Zero.
"There was a lot of pride in that tunnel today," said Manhasset-Lakeville firefighter Eric Dobkin, who ran through the tunnel wearing his fire helmet and gear with fellow firefighter John Ao. "It chokes you up. As I’m running, I’m wondering about what (Siller) went through, what was going on in his mind."
An estimated 35,000 people, according to Tunnel to Towers Foundation chief executive officer Frank Siller, gathered in an industrial neighborhood in Brooklyn under a buttery autumn sky and sprinted, jogged or walked through the tunnel in lower Manhattan. The participants included first responders and service members from every state in the union, Siller said.
Siller, 34, was assigned to Squad 1 in Park Slope, Brooklyn. He had just finished his tour and was heading home to Staten Island when he heard a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.
After he found traffic blocked at the entrance to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, Siller strapped the gear on his back and ran nearly two miles through it toward Ground Zero. His remains were never found.
The family created the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation to honor him, his fellow firefighters and 71 law-enforcement officers who also perished, as well as the thousands of civilians killed in the attacks.
"It reminds me to be as good as I can be, to live as much as I can, and to push through difficult times," said Siller’s niece, Mae Zolotowsky, of East Brunswick, New Jersey. "It reminds me of how I want to live my life."
The organization, founded to support the families of first responders and military personnel, will pay off the mortgages or built housing this year for the families of 200 police and firefighters who have died, Frank Siller said. Tunnel to Towers has already paid off the mortgages of 250 first responders.
One of those beneficiaries is Jackie McDevitt of Lynbrook, whose FDNY firefighter Matthew McDevitt died from cancer in October 2019, leaving her to raise their two children by herself. She ran through the tunnel wearing her husband’s fire coat.
"It was so emotional, so heavy and so inspiring," McDevitt said. "I had chills all over my body."
FDNY Capt. Jerry Snell of Long Beach and the Long Beach Waterfront Warriors -- which raises money to treat service members who received treatment at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Virginia to vacations on Long Island and New York City -- said they participated in the run to honor eight firefighters from Long Beach who died at Ground Zero. They were among the runners rewarded at the end of the run with a block party that on Vesey Street, complete with ribs, hot dogs, burgers and live music, including a smoking performance by the Benny Havens West Point Band and a concert by country music stars Big & Rich.
"We want it to be a joyous occasion. We wanted to honor their sacrifices," Siller said of those who died on 9/11. "But we also wanted to celebrate their lives."
Snell, who was working at the World Trade Center as a Port Authority engineer when the towers fell, said it was important for him to attend the Tunnel to Towers run on the 20th anniversary of the attacks to honor Stephen Siller’s commitment to service -- and celebrate the fact that he survived that awful day.
"It is important to show we can’t forget," Snell said. "If nobody carries the torch and nobody tells the stories, it will fade."