“343,” the number of FDNY personnel killed on 9/11, has been seared into the collective memory of the department for 21 years — sewn onto patches, stenciled on firetrucks, silk-screened onto T-shirts, printed on memorial cards, carved onto firefighter helmets.
On Sunday morning, the 21st anniversary, FDNY firefighter Etan Blatt is running 34.3 miles — from Long Beach to the Ground Zero site. The run is a memorial as well as a fundraiser for firehouses of firefighters who die in the line of duty and their families.
It’s the inaugural run for Blatt’s nascent charity, the 34.3 Foundation, which he’s in the process of registering with the government as an official nonprofit. For his run on Sunday, he’ll be joined by fellow firefighters Kelly Coyle, Kevin Schaaf and Greg Benisatto, from his firehouse.
“Running 34 miles is far from easy; it’s very daunting and it takes a lot of training. But it is much less daunting then what those 343 firefighters saw when [they] pulled up to the chaotic scene at the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11th, 2001,” Blatt wrote on his website.
Blatt did not lose family in the attack, “but I do have close friends that I work with in the fire department that lost their fathers, that lost their brothers.”
In a small way, the difficulty of completing the run — the route is 30% longer than a marathon — is a physical reminder of the suffering of firefighters who perished that day and the families who were left to mourn, he said.
“34 miles — it’s not easy. So as we’re suffering those last 10, 15 miles, it kind of reminds us of the pain and suffering that those men went through that day and their families for their future after that,” he said, adding: “As we head into the next 20 years, it’s important to keep the awareness of the selflessness and bravery that was displayed that day.”
The route, which he mapped on his iPhone, begins on Riverside Boulevard on the boardwalk in Long Beach, over the Atlantic Beach Bridge, then into Queens and the Rockaway Boardwalk to 126th Street, continuing into Belle Harbor, Neponsit, Riis Park, over the Marine Parkway Bridge, then Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn to the Manhattan Bridge, passing FDNY headquarters along the way.
Once in Manhattan, the route goes north and then west and south to stop at several firehouses that sustained 9/11 casualties, and then onward to the Trade Center site.
Blatt came up with the idea last year, just before the 20th anniversary of the attacks. He decided to go for a run in memoriam, with no intention, yet, of raising money for charity. His friend Ryan Mack tagged along — on a bike — taking photos, and put up a post on Instagram that garnered nearly 25,000 views.
About a month later, Blatt decided that for the 21st anniversary, he’d make the run into a charity. As of earlier this week, he’s raised $7,000. Donors can give — including by buying T-shirts available on the charity website, 343foundation.com. The money will help families in the aftermath of a line-of-duty death.
“Any way I can help at all, with just a couple of thousand dollars, just to say, ‘I’m here for you guys,’” he said.
Blatt, 39, who is originally from West Hartford, Connecticut, now lives just west of Long Beach in East Atlantic Beach, on Malone Avenue, with his wife, Patricia Hennessy.
“I was a summer Long Beach kid, and I made it full time when I was about 19, so I actually bought my father’s summer house here,” he said from his basement.
It was in Boston where Blatt started running, first a few miles a day, then 8 or 9 miles, a hobby that grew into long-distance running. He’s done four marathons, all in New York City, with the FDNY.
After working for a few years as a sound engineer in the city, Blatt started with the FDNY in 2008 — as an emergency medical technician, hoping to become a firefighter — and went to the fire academy in 2013.
He was first assigned to Engine 14, on East 18th Street and Broadway in Manhattan’s Union Square, did a rotation in Ladder 3 on 13th Street, went back to Engine 14 briefly, and later transferred to Ladder 134 in Far Rockaway, Queens, where he’s assigned now.
On 9/11, Blatt was 18 and living in Boston for school. (He went to college for music engineering.) That Tuesday morning, he got a call from his then-girlfriend, minutes after the first plane struck the north tower, at 8:46 a.m.
"My roommate and I turned on the TV and watched in horror as the second plane hit," Blatt said.
Years later, he’d hear firsthand stories as a junior firefighter from senior firefighters who lived through that day — and stories about those who didn’t.