Firefighters from around the region, many wearing their heavy heat-resistant gear, joined thousands of runners Sunday in the annual tradition of retracing 9/11 first-responder Stephen Siller's steps to Ground Zero.
Siller, a Long Island-raised member of the FDNY, dashed through what was then called the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel toward the World Trade Center and ultimately his death. More than 35,000 people did the same Sunday for charitable causes in his memory.
Jen Hawker, 36, of the Scranton Fire Department in Pennsylvania, donned her firefighting jacket, pants and helmet and said reliving Siller's experience gave her chills.
"I couldn't believe he did this," Hawker said. "I couldn't imagine the chaos of people running past. I couldn't imagine the panic."
Siller, 34, a Rockville Centre native, was on his way home to Staten Island from his Brooklyn firehouse when news of the attacks came over his scanner. He strapped on 60 pounds of gear and sprinted to the scene because car traffic was blocked from the tunnel, which is now known as the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel.
His family has for 13 years hosted the Tunnel To Towers 5K Run & Walk to benefit a foundation that now includes superstorm Sandy relief, aids burn centers and builds homes for disabled military veterans, among other initiatives. It has raised more than $40 million, with corporate backers and similar fundraisers worldwide.
But the grassroots spirit was felt with families running together and Siller's message of sacrifice still resounding.
"Stephen's story has caught on," said John Hodge, Siller's cousin and the foundation's vice president for operations. "Whenever you tell people the story, they start crying or get goose bumps."
Hodge said his family often wonders what Siller would think if he knew he had inspired good deeds worldwide.
"I have no idea what was going through his mind as he was running through the tunnel," Hodge said. "This may have exceeded his wildest dreams. It's far exceeded our wildest dreams."
FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro said the Sillers turned their loss into something powerfully positive. "The victory gets greater each and every year," he said.
Smithtown Fire Department Lt. Sean Hardy, 24, said it was especially emotional to be greeted outside the tunnel by a wall of FDNY members in dress blues with banners bearing photos of the 343 firefighters who died in the attacks.
Allison Kane, 33, of Stony Brook, a teacher participating with the Suffolk Police Running Club, said the strong turnout was not surprising. "It's the American spirit," she said. "It's the resiliency of Americans."
About 35 representatives of the Jones Beach lifeguards attended in honor of colleagues who died on Sept. 11, including FDNY Capt. William Burke Jr., 46, of Plainview.
"We'll always stand for it. We will never forget," said Burke's friend, Rich Kollar, 65, of Middle Island.