New York Tunnel 2 Towers 5k run/walk


 

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This year a very good friend of mine, Andy, called me up, told me he was taking part in the New York tunnel to towers run and wondered if I was interested in also taking part.  The decision was based on finances, availability and, of course, whether or not I actually wanted to go to New York and indeed take part in the run.  Well, though I’ve visited America a couple of times, I’ve never actually been to New York and have always been eager to visit so decided to go.  And it was on this and this alone that I’d based my decision.  That’s no great deal in itself but when I stopped to think about it, after I’d completed the 5k event, it struck me that I should have based my decision more on my interest in the cause that the event supported than anything else.  I’m so used to getting on with my everyday life and am so comfortable in my own world that the events that led to the formation of this charitable organisation seem like a lifetime ago.  Part of this reason is that my memory, as anyone who knows me will tell you, is horrendous.  I struggle to remember much of my past and find it hard to retain information generally so my complacency on this matter is not borne from apathy but from a faulty hard drive.  But also, it must be remembered that the reason for such charities to exist is so that people can go about their daily lives.  They exist precisely to remove barriers, to overcome obstacles and to put everyone onto an equal footing.

“Which charity is it though?”  What do you mean “which charity”?  Oh, of course, sorry.  I’m ahead of myself…let me wind this back a little and take you back to the beginning……to September 11th 2001.

Such an unforgettably abhorrent event needs no introduction and there are countless accounts of acts of heroism and bravery that came out of that time that demonstrated the best of what the American people are capable of but the story that spawned the tunnel to towers event began with Firefighter Stephen Gerard Siller of Brooklyn’s squad 1.  (The following 4 paragraphs are taken directly from http://tunnel2towers.org/stephens-story in order to allow the charity themselves to explain the story in their own words.

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Firefighter Stephen Gerard Siller was the youngest of seven children born to Mae and George Siller. At the age of eight, Stephen lost his father, and a year and a half later he also lost his mother, which left him an orphan to be raised by his older siblings. For a while Stephen went through a period of struggle, but thanks to the love of his siblings, and the values instilled in him by his parents, he grew up to be an extraordinary individual and dedicated firefighter. More than most, he knew that time was precious and accomplished much in his 34 years.

On September 11, 2001, Stephen, who was assigned to Brooklyn’s Squad 1, had just finished his shift, and was on his way to play golf with his brothers when he got word of the first plane hitting the Twin Towers over his scanner. Upon hearing the news, Stephen called his wife Sally and asked her to tell his brothers he would catch up with them later, and returned to Squad 1 to get his gear.

Stephen drove his truck to the entrance of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, but it had already been closed for security purposes. Determined to carry out his duty, he strapped 60 lbs. of gear to his back, and raced on foot through the tunnel to the Twin Towers, where he gave up his life while saving others.

Stephen had everything to live for; a great wife, five wonderful children, a devoted extended family, and friends. Stephen’s parents were lay Franciscans and he grew up under the guiding philosophy of St. Francis of Assisi, whose encouraging and inspirational phrase “while we have time, let us do good” were words that Stephen lived by. Stephen’s life and heroic death serve as a reminder to us all to live life to the fullest and to spend our time here on earth doing good – this is his legacy.

Skip forward to September 25th 2016.  My wife, some friends and colleagues from the London Fire Brigade are all standing in the carpark of IKEA in Brooklyn.  We’re surrounded by thousands of people, also waiting for the event to begin.  As I shield my eyes form the sun I look up to identify where the loud fomf-fomf-fomf-fomf is coming from.  Overhead two NYPD police helicopters fly low in honour of the event.  They are impressively close to each other as they slowly and respectfully pass and it is a hint of the strength of feeling and camaraderie that is to follow.

Everybody around us is respectful.  No one is jumping queues for toilets, no one is raising their voices at others other than to greet a late friend or to exchange amusing banter with other groups of colleagues.  An American woman stopped my wife and I, having seen our London Fire Brigade T-shirts, to say hello.  “I just had to hear your accent” she said.  She then told us about how she had always planned to do the event and had promised her Father, before he died, that she would.  She had with her an old black and white picture of her Father, who had also been in the Fire Service.  She stated that, because of it being the 15th anniversary of the event, that she had decided that this would be the year that she would fulfil her promise.  She also asked us about whether we were aware of the recent bombings they had had in New York and New Jersey which we found strange as our news reports here cover world events.  It was later in the week that, having watched several News Channels during our stay in New York that only seemed to run local New York News, and then the national News agencies that seemed to concentrate heavily on Domestic news stories only, that we realised that perhaps the lady that stopped us assumed that we might not be aware of foreign events.  Who knows?  Either way, it was nice to have spoken to the lady and her friends after which we were informed by our group that we had to head off to the start line.

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As we weaved our way through groups of Firefighters (complete with fire gear) soldiers, police, charity runners, Mums with pushchairs and other assorted groups of friends and colleagues all giggling, making jokes and excited to begin, we were given free bottles of water and sweatbands (sponsored by the Home Depot) until we arrived at the start line.

Announcements were being made over a PA and then the Star Spangled Banner was sung by two guys who I didn’t recognise but who the surrounding runners clearly knew and were further inspired by.  We were given staggered group times in order to avoid too much bottlenecking through the tunnels.  As the horn sounded for us to start we all cheered and jogged through the start line.

We headed along the closed streets for a short while until we were turned back towards the tunnel by a well placed Fire Truck that regularly sounded its’ horn and whose crew were happy to chat to passing runners and pose for pictures with them.  The atmosphere was, forgive the cliché but it’s true, charged with electricity.  It was such a tangible thing that you could almost reach out and touch the strength of the atmosphere and commonality of feeling amongst everyone taking part, including the supporters and organisers.

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As we turned and headed back up a short ramp towards the tunnel, greeted by the full New York skyline ahead of us, we ran through the road tolls towards the entrance.  Echoes of “Hooyars” and “U!-S!-A! U!-S!-A!” spilled out of the entrance and washed over all those who approached.

This is where things really began to hit home for Tracy, my wife, and I.  For the first part of the 5k we had actually jogged.  Then we walked because, to be honest, we were more than happy just to be there and to soak in the atmosphere.

Many people pushed pushchairs, walked in groups, chatted and chanted “USA!” as they weaved their way and found their own paths through the long tunnel.  After a short while of walking it began to dawn on me just how long we’d been walking through it.  As we turned a corner and yet another corner it seemed as if the tunnel would never end.  I don’t mean this to sound like a complaint, far from it, moreover it struck me that this was the route that Stephen Siller had had to run, complete with Firegear and Breathing Apparatus, on that tragic day back in 2001.  Before the day of the event I’d never actually heard Stephens’ full story but here, quite literally in his footsteps, it was hard not to imagine the sight of Stephen running along in front of us.  As it happens we didn’t need to imagine for very long as Firefighter after firefighter passed us on their own personal pilgrimages as they traced their colleagues’ route.  Some of these Firefighters may have even served with Stephen though, of course, not all as many of them had clearly come from all four corners of the United States to support the event and to raise monies for such a worthy cause.

My wife recounted to me later on that she had seen an old guy running along wearing a battered PPE fire tunic and he was carrying an old fire helmet.  She had noted that she had no idea what his story was.  Was this his gear?  Had he attended the twin towers that day?  Or was this the helmet of perhaps his Sons’ or of an old colleague of his?  Either way, this clearly meant a great deal to him and having seen the events of 911 unfold, even from such a safe distance, it was still easy to see why.  This event means something to so many people and it’s easy to see why and even easier to get caught up in the sense of pride, celebration, remembrance and solidarity as echoes of “U!-S!-A!” continued to bounce along the tunnels as if the very sound was trying to trace Stephen’s footsteps.

My wife and I stepped up onto the side kerb and stopped for a moment to take a few photos and to soak in the atmosphere and, as I reflected on Stephens’ story, I was reminded of the well-known verse Footsteps In The Sand.  And though I’m far from being religious, it just seemed appropriate for the moment.

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Eventually our approach to the tunnel exit was accompanied by the sounds of a young persons’ band playing and instrumental version of “Killing in the name” by Rage Against the Machine.  I thought at the time that perhaps this was not the best song title to be using on this particular day, and perhaps even the message might have been better timed, but, regardless, the energy of the song and its’ performance were powerful and well delivered.

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As we turned away from the tunnel we could see Firefighters lining the side of the route.  Each of them wore around their neck a picture of a comrade who had fallen at “Ground Zero”.  I was impressed that so many Firefighters would take the time to give their support and would still be as resolute so many years after the event.  Runners and walkers alike high-fived many of the Firefighters who shouted encouragement and their thanks for the continued support of the charity.  Tracy and I continued to walk along the line of Firefighters.  As we turned corner after corner this line continued, without break, for what seemed like miles.  What was even more staggering was the realisation that these were only representative of the 343 first responders who lost their lives when the twin towers collapsed following the terrorist attacks and was merely a fraction of the total number of souls lost that day.

I walked the tunnel to towers event and I’m glad I took part in it but now I know I have to go back and run the whole thing.  It means much more to me than I ever thought it would or could and for Stephen’s sake, and my own, I know I have to return one day and complete it and, if possible, I’ll do it in full Firegear.  My wife and I walked the 5k but we both knew as soon as we completed it that we would need to return to do it again.

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I am mindful though that what Stephen stood for, ran for, and ultimately fell for that day, was to ensure that other people, people like myself and all those other runners around me were able to continue going about our daily lives.  And now the organisation set up in his name is continuing to do good works by building smart homes for American service personnel and first responders.

Our 5k journey ended at the 9/11 memorial.  A simple, understated memorial that was both elegant and fitting and which was the perfect place to stop and reflect on the reasons we had come here and the reasons that we would return.

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For my own personal memories of the events of 9/11 a previous blog can be viewed here: Memories of 9/11

For a previous blog about my views on New York itself, click here: New York, New York IS a wonderful town

For more information on the Stephen Siller foundation and details on how you might like to donate or take part in a later tunnel-to-towers event, please click here: Tunnel2Towers.org

For information about the UK Firefighters’ Charity please click here: Firefighterscharity.ork.uk

As always, please feel free to leave comments and, for anyone wishing to contact you can find me here ned@thewayofthesquirrelbooks.com