Carmela Raguso donned her late husband’s turnout coat Sunday morning as she prepared to run from Brooklyn to Manhattan along with about 30,000 others in an annual event honoring first responders and military service members who died in the line of duty.
Her husband Christopher Raguso, a member of the Fire Department of New York from Commack, had run in the Tunnel to Towers 5K Run & Walk for many years before he was killed in a helicopter crash in Iraq in 2018 while serving in the Air Force, she said.
Raguso said she feels “a lot of pride that I can be a part of this, because of his sacrifice.”
“Our girls will know how their dad was a hero and how this is done for the heroes who do good in the world,” Raguso, 40, said near the Brooklyn entrance to the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel shortly before the start of the run. Their daughters, ages 9 and 11, would join her on the 5-kilometer route, she said.
The run generally retraces the steps of Stephen Siller, a Brooklyn firefighter who ran through the tunnel in full gear on Sept. 11, 2001, and died when the Twin Towers collapsed. His brother, Frank Siller, started the event in 2002 and is chairman and chief executive of the Tunnel to Towers Foundation. The foundation, through this event and others, raises money to pay the mortgages of people like Raguso who are raising young children after losing a spouse in the line of duty since 9/11.
“'America the Beautiful' is beautiful because we have people willing to risk their lives for us,” Siller said to reporters at the starting gate Sunday morning. “All too often, when they do, they don’t come home. We better make a promise that we’ll take care of the families left behind.”
Rebecca Briggs, 36, of Port Jefferson Station, whose husband, Deshawn, died in the helicopter crash with Raguso, said the foundation’s payment of her mortgage was “absolutely life-changing.” Having her home paid for meant she could quit working as an accountant and stay at home with her two children. She is now studying nursing at Stony Brook University.
“We got the chance to really stay home with our kids, especially when they needed it and we needed it,” Briggs said, standing beside Raguso, whose mortgage was also paid off by the foundation. Running Sunday with her children, Briggs said she would be thinking of her late husband.
“I just hope he's there with me, smiling down on me and the kids,” Briggs said. “They miss him a lot but they just know he's a hero.”
After the start of the event, runners and walkers emerged from the tunnel on the Manhattan side on a route flanked by American flags and banners bearing the pictures and names of first responders and military service people who died in the line of duty.
Along one stretch by the waterfront in Battery Park City, 45 members of Hempstead High School’s Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps held banners and cheered on runners.
“They really didn’t learn about 9/11 and what this country went through where everybody came together, and I always bring them out here every year so they can,” said their senior leadership instructor, Kenneth Woods. “They’re learning about the sacrifices that Americans gave to this country and that’s what we teach them.”
After the finish line, Cameron Keresztes, 20, a volunteer firefighter from Holbrook in his turnout gear, said it was his third time running.
“It gets your heart pumping,” Keresztes said of running in his gear. “It gets a little heavy on the shoulders. … Downhill parts are easiest, the uphill parts are a little tougher.”
Michael Poetta, 48, a correction officer with the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department from Wading River, ran Sunday with his wife, Meghan.
He said he has run nine times, “just to pay honor to Stephen Siller, who gave so much on that day,” he said amid a throng past the finish line. “It’s the least we can do, is come out and support him on a day like today.”
Coming through the tunnel was very emotional, he said.
“There’s a feeling of awe and such a huge emotional response that it’s indescribable,” Poetta said. “Especially seeing all the people of New York gathered for this one time that we have to unite.”
He added that with “the electricity of everybody here, I think we could run back to Brooklyn.”