Thousands of runners — some carrying American flags, others dressed in heavy firefighter gear — hit New York City streets on a gorgeous Sunday morning for the 17th annual Tunnel to Towers 5K Run and Walk, held to honor the 343 firefighters who died while responding to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on lower Manhattan.
“When you come out of the tunnel and see where those towers were and just imagine what those guys went through, it really gives you a lot of chills,” said Michael Adam of the Southampton Fire Department, who ran the course with 19 other members of the department. “It makes you appreciate what they did.”
Runners from every state in the union, and as far away as Australia, Britain, Romania and Croatia, participated in the event, which retraces the steps of Stephen Siller, an FDNY firefighter who ran through the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel to help others on 9/11.
Siller had finished his shift at Squad 1 in Brooklyn and was on his way to play golf that day in 2001 when he learned the World Trade Center had been attacked. He drove back to his firehouse, retrieved his gear and headed to lower Manhattan.
When Siller found traffic blocked at the entrance to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, he strapped 60 pounds of gear on his back and ran through the tunnel. He died later that day at the Twin Towers.
James Tarabokija of the Tenafly, New Jersey, fire department, ran the course in his firefighter gear and said it made him really appreciate Siller’s commitment to service. “This was only a taste of what he did and with the pressure of all that was happening that day,” said a red-faced Tarabokija, sweating as he pulled off his gear at the end of the race.
Siller’s family created the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, the race’s sponsor, to honor his commitment to others. The organization has raised more than $100 million to assist first responders and military veterans since its inception in 2002.
“This family is a Staten Island, New York, gem sort of family,” said former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, chairman of the event. “They took the death of their youngest brother, who sacrificed his life up there in the sky, and they turned it into something that helped thousands of people who need the help most.”
Thirty thousand people gathered in a Brooklyn industrial neighborhood and sprinted, jogged and walked through the tunnel into lower Manhattan, where they were greeted by a sea of American flags, banners with portraits of firefighters who died on 9/11, and a bagpipe-and-drums band.
“It’s a very heartwarming day that so many people from all over the country, all over the world, come here for Tunnel to Towers,” FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro said. “It’s really a tribute to the Siller family that turned a family tragedy into this noble cause.”
The runners later snacked on hot dogs, hamburgers, ribs and other treats at a post-race barbecue in lower Manhattan, where massage therapists and acupuncturists provided relief for those with sore feet and aching legs.
Retired London firefighter Clive Harding, his wife, Tonya Harding (no relation to the figure skater), and their friend Alfred Brooks were part of a 40-member contingent that traveled from Britain to New York for the race. He said he was felt a special kinship with New York firefighters as he sat in his London firehouse that day, watching the events of 9/11 unfold on television.
“It was a weird feeling, “ he said. “You know what they are going through. You know what their training is like, what their preparation is like, and you realize it could be any one of us. We’ve experienced terrorism, too, although not on that scale.”
Some runners were simply drawn out of curiosity.
Pepe Bailey of Manhattan ran the last part of the race — from the Manhattan side of the tunnel to the finish line — with her puppy, an 8-month-old Bernese mountain dog named Zoe.
“This is the first time I have done the run,” she said. “It’s a great cause, and I always see it from our apartment, so I wanted to join this year.”