As the FDNY marked the 343rd death of a member from a 9/11-related illness this weekend, a group of around 60 Long Islanders on Sunday took part in an annual race from Brooklyn to lower Manhattan that pays tribute to the first responders who made the ultimate sacrifice on that terrible day and in the years since.
The Thomas G. Oelkers Foundation, a charity founded to honor a Floral Park firefighter who died from World Trade Center-related cancer, organized transportation to the Tunnel to Towers 5K Run & Walk for the group, mostly hailing from the Nassau village.
The nearly 60 walkers were among the 2,800 people who participated in the race, which mirrors the run off-duty FDNY firefighter Stephen Siller took through what is now the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel to the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, where he died. It's held each year on the last Sunday of September.
Floral Park is a “very tight-knit community” that knows “how to rally and step up and support people,” said Erika Oelkers, 48, who founded the Thomas G. Oelkers Foundation after her husband died in 2021.
Hers was the first family of a first responder to die of a post-9/11 illness to have their mortgage paid by the Tunnel to Towers Foundation, which organizes the race each year.
Thomas Oelkers served as a firefighter in the Bronx for 19 years after pivoting from a career as an NYPD officer. He helped with recovery efforts after the Sept. 11 attacks. He was diagnosed with cancer in 2020 and died nine months later at 46, leaving behind Erika and their three daughters.
“[Thomas] was known for helping out kids in the community, helping out families, just always a loud, larger-than-life presence who was always helping other people,” said Katie Tuffy, 52, of Floral Park. She is a longtime friend and neighbor of the Oelkers family, and on the board of directors for the Thomas G. Oelkers Foundation.
Tuffy highlighted Erika Oelkers’ work to give back since her husband's death, including plans to run the New York City Marathon in November to raise money and awareness for the Tunnel to Towers Foundation.
“I think I’m most impressed, and I think we all are, that Erika generously shares Tommy with us through this organization and then goes out there and acts,” Tuffy said.
“She’s running a marathon with three kids, working full time, on her own — doing it all, since he’s gone now two and a half years — but trying to always give back," Tuffy said. "… It's just all about continuing what he did on earth. She’s doing it for him now.”