Two firefighters approach the finish line of the Stephen Siller...

Two firefighters approach the finish line of the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Run near the World Trade Center site. (Sept. 29, 2013) Credit: Jeremy Bales

Twelve years after New York City firefighter Stephen Siller hurriedly grabbed his boots, coat and helmet and started to run through a clogged Brooklyn Battery Tunnel toward the doomed Twin Towers, a crowd of more than 30,000 retraced those steps, which were his last.

The gathering Sunday included London firefighters wearing Union Jacks like capes, Hofstra University lacrosse players who dimly remembered being pulled out of their elementary school classrooms on the day of the 9/11 attacks, and a contingent of 30 Sag Harbor volunteer firefighters in full gear, minus breathing apparatus.

The mood for the 5k run was, at times, buoyant. Dance music played and comedian Joe Piscopo sang. But for some, the run had the solemnity of a religious pilgrimage.

"It hit me at one point -- What was he thinking? Did he know what he was running toward?" asked Tom Gardella, 48, a plumber and assistant chief for the Sag Harbor Fire Department, at the run's end, on West Street, near where the towers fell and 1 World Trade Center, formerly known as the Freedom Tower, loomed.

Gardella's only concession to comfort had been to wear sneakers instead of boots, but his run had been hot, uncomfortable and exhausting. "That's the way Siller did it," he said. "We did it to honor him and all the other firefighters," he said.

The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center killed 343 firefighters, men who had led lives both heroic and familiar. In this respect Siller was typical: he was 34, a Staten Island resident raised in Rockville Centre with a wife and five children when he made the choice to run toward, and not away from, the towers.

More than $2 million was raised for the Stephen Stiller Foundation, which benefits burn victims and wounded soldiers, an event spokeswoman said.

One runner, Michael Kehoe, 24, a Sag Harbor architect and firefighter, said the 1.7 mile tunnel, which was closed to traffic, felt endless. "You're underground, underground, you don't see anything," he said.

When at last the runners emerged, they were met by a bagpipe band and an honor guard carrying banner-sized photographs of the firefighters killed, men Kehoe called "fallen brothers."

Joseph DiGirolomo, 54, a New York City firefighter from Rocky Point, had just finished a shift when he too turned around and went back in that day.

Sunday, he said he was trying to enjoy the run, jogging along with his daughter, Courtney, 17, a senior on the cross-country team at Rocky Point High School.

But DiGirolomo knows the death toll. He has also lost a friend who'd been working in Cantor Fitzgerald and a family member, a union painter working on one of the towers.

"It still gets you," he said.

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