Participants From All Over U.S. Help Commemorate Hero’s Ultimate Commitment
By Andy Katz
Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
“They fought the first battle,” First Sergeant James Card explained, gesturing toward the front of Red Hook’s Ladder 131. Although the group calls themselves “The Happy Hookers,” their station’s façade features a picture of five firefighters who answered the call on that September morning, and didn’t come back. “We’re just continuing it,” Card added.
Card, of the 22nd Infantry, 10th Mountain Division, had gathered, along with a dozen or so soldiers belonging to various units of that famed division, to take part in the 15th annual Stephen Sillers Tower To Tunnels 5K Run/Walk. Command Sergeant Major Robert Fortenberry, also of the 22nd, gave last-minute instructions before the soldiers headed off to the starting line.
The race, held annually on the last Sunday of September, commemorates the actions of firefighter Stephen Siller, of Park Slope’s Squad One, who, upon learning of the first plane striking the towers, drove to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel to try to render aid. Discovering it had been closed already to vehicular traffic, Siller took his 60-pound ready pack and ran the rest of the way into Lower Manhattan. He did not return.
This year, about 28,000 people registered to run, including a group from Seaside, New Jersey, who signed on after their own race had been cancelled due to a bomb explosion.
Others came from places much farther away. The Brekke family arrived from San Diego carrying letters written by son Torin’s fourth grade classmates thanking the FDNY, which were hand-delivered to the Squad One stationhouse on Union Street. In addition to Firefighter Siller, Squad One lost half of its complement on Sept. 11.
The Marcils — Steve, Emily and Gigi — live in Atlanta. “We contacted the Siller Foundation,” Steve Marcil explained, “asked them how we might help. How we might make a difference. That brought us here.”
Closer to home, Bob Fleming, a longtime friend of the Siller family, lives in Bay Ridge. “I was born on 51st Street and 15th Avenue,” he said. “I’ve lived here my whole life, so I’m Brooklyn through and through.”
“The idea for the run came from the family,” Justin Siller, nephew and godson of Stephen, explained. The Stephen Siller Tunnel To Towers Foundation, a 501 (c)(3) non-profit, was created. In addition to the Tunnel To Towers 5K Run/Walk, the foundation sponsors an annual Golf Fore America’s Bravest golf tournament and dinner in Staten Island. It also helped New Hope Baptist Church to relocate more than 100 orphaned Haitian children left homeless by the earthquake.
Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani and comedian Joe Piscopo led the opening ceremonies as firefighters in full response attire carried U.S. flags and filled the starting line. Patriot artist Scott LoBaido painted a rendition of the Twin Towers against a background of vivid red, yellow and blue streaks. Singers Al Lander and Jack Furnari sang the “Star Spangled Banner.”
Then it was time to run.
The runners departed in waves, some consisting almost entirely of military, others a mix of whole families, athletes and even firefighters in full or at least partial emergency response kit. Dennis Schoen, Jr. from Sunland Park, New Mexico and Jason Bostic from Fredericktown, Ohio compromised, taking part in heavy jackets and helmets, but otherwise wearing lightweight clothing for the run/walk.
According to the Stephen Siller Tunnel To Towers Foundation, some 300 runners took part in the first commemorative event in 2002. This year saw not only a record number of participants in New York City, but also similar events staged all over the country, including in Miami, Columbia, South Carolina, Detroit and Fort Myers, Florida.