In early March of 2000, I found my way from Ozone Park to Sunnyside, Queens, for the inaugural St. Pat’s for All Parade. The parade was unique because it welcomed LGBT groups to participate. Most other St. Patrick’s parades at the time did not.
It was the first St. Patrick’s parade I marched in, representing a human rights group that monitored the contentious marching season in the North of Ireland. The parade included many of the standard Irish groups and local politicians but also featured an LGBT marching band, a traditional Korean dance troupe, and other organizations that are not strange in Queens but do stand out in a St Patrick’s Day parade. The parade gathered news coverage (Hillary Clinton was there, running for Senate) and a few religious protesters upset that St. Patrick’s name was being use to make friendly with the gays.
During the march, I noticed a Catholic priest in a brown robe shaking hands with people aside the parade route. Oh no, I thought to myself, what litany of lies did the parade organizers tell this poor priest to get him here? He’s going to have a heart attack when he sees the gay marching band.
But that priest did not have a heart attack upon seeing the gay marching band. The priest was Father Mychal Judge.
Father Judge is most famous for being the New York Fire Department chaplain who perished in the September 11 attacks; he is listed as the first official casualty of that day. But long before his untimely death, Father Judge was a bridge between the multitudes of New York communities. At a time of increasing hostility between the Catholic Church’s leadership and LGBT groups, he made it part of his mission to minister to gays and lesbians and people with AIDS. He was dedicated to helping the homeless and people suffering drug and alcohol addiction, and he led a peace mission in Ireland. Few others would have been able to shake hands with cross-wielding protesters and break bread with a gay marching band on that same morning in Queens.
In his last homily, delivered the day before he was killed at the World Trade Center, he spoke to firefighters in The Bronx. He spoke about the unpredictable nature of life and how everyone has their part to play, that each one of us has a place.
“That’s the way it is. Good days. And bad days. Up days. Down days. Sad days. Happy days. But never a boring day on this job. You do what God has called you to do. You show up. You put one foot in front of another. You get on the rig and you go out and you do the job – which is a mystery. And a surprise. You have no idea when you get on that rig. No matter how big the call. No matter how small. You have no idea what God is calling you to. But he needs you. He needs me. He needs all of us.”
September is freshly ended and with it, most of the commemorations of the September 11 attacks. One of the best traditions, the Stephen Siller Foundation Tunnel to Towers 5k, is held the last Sunday in September.
On a rainy October evening, I was making my way home from midtown after a long workday. A fire engine was driving down the street and was stuck at an intersection of 6th Ave. and 31st Street. Despite having the right of way, the firefighter at the wheel waved pedestrians across.
I discovered I was crossing Father Mychal F. Judge Street, a segment of West 31st that runs past his church, St. Francis of Assisi. It was named in his honor in 2002. FDNY Engine 1/Ladder 24 station is nearby. It would have been disrespectful to ignore the sign and continue on with the regular rush of the afternoon commute. I stepped out of people’s way and took a photo of the sign.
There are few New Yorkers who represent the resiliency and humanity of our city the way Father Mychal Judge did. His sacrifice has special meaning for firefighters and those who lost loved ones in the September 11th attacks, but the life he lived symbolizes the best of us and serves as an inspiration the world over. It always will.
It was a quiet Wednesday night and we had just managed to put our girls to bed when we heard and felt an explosion. Even though it had been raining, there was no way that this was thunder. The explosion was quickly followed by a burning smell. We looked out our windows but did not see anything. The burning smell persisted.
A few short minutes later a legion of emergency vehicles arrived. Fire engines and police cars with screaming sirens and lights ablaze rushed down Union Street. The fire trucks positioned themselves near our building as police cars rushed passed them to block off traffic coming in both directions. The problem seemed to be coming from across the street, but we couldn’t tell what had happened. Was there a burning vehicle? Did someone detonate a car bomb in our neighborhood? Was there a meth lab in someone’s apartment that caught fire and now toxic chemicals are in the air?
I decided to investigate, taking a basement exit in case police were blocking off the front entrance of our building. When I got to the front of my building there were many people on the street already there to bear witness to the events. I noticed smoke coming from an open manhole on the street. A firefighter was connecting a hose to the fire hydrant nearest our building. The hose led across the street.
I encountered a Spanish-speaking man who was standing near my building. I asked him what was going on. In thickly accented English he told me that he saw flames coming from a building across the street and he had called 911. He didn’t know what had happened but he saw flames and smoke coming from a manhole and a building. A South Asian woman wrapped in a traditional sari came by and spoke with us. She mentioned that she had been saying her prayers when she heard the explosion; the burning smell had driven her from her apartment to investigate.
After chatting with these neighbors I headed across the street where there more people gathered. One of the buildings was completely dark and it was towards there that the firefighters were all streaming. Police officers and fire officials talked to one another as more FDNY personnel arrived. A few more fire department vehicles showed up. A Q44 bus found itself trapped, hemmed in by first responders on both sides. Its driver stood outside the bus talking into a cell phone before signing off and standing there resignedly.
As I stood watching, a friend, J. Dip, approached me. He lives across the street. I know him through music: he plays guitar for New York hardcore stalwarts Bloodbeat. He lives in a building next to the affected one and told me that he heard and felt the blast and saw flames coming from the basement windows of the next building as well. He told his wife to be ready to move their kids out of their quickly and he went to investigate. We talked about other things: how we were doing and what our lives were up to. He and his wife are expecting a third child in November. We are both still playing music, but life slows down a bit when you have kids.
Another bystander said that it was likely an electrical fire and explosion caused by corroded wiring. He explained that with the large quantities of salt put on New York City roads during the winter months, some salt seeps underground and corrodes utility cables there. When it rains later in the year, water can touch those exposed wires and cause fires and explosions.
That seemed like the most plausible explanation, and the firemen were not evacuating any buildings, so my adventure was done. Con Ed trucks were already pulling up to start fixing things as I walked back across the street for home.
This was some excitement that one might think would make it onto the television news or merit a mention in a newspaper, but nothing doing. There were no fatalities or grisly injuries. “If it doesn’t bleed, there’s no need,” would be the appropriate adage for lack of news coverage.
So no big deal, just another explosion in New York. We live in one of the largest cities in the world and the infrastructure is always being revised. Sometimes by tragedy or accident, sometimes by design, New York always reinvents itself. As long as this metropolis stands, its story will be one of grinding, sweat and broken concrete, of taped-off work zones and slap-dash detours. We’ll face them all down, one odd weekday explosion at a time.
The story should be familiar to you. On September 11, 2001, Firefighter Stephen Siller was officially off duty when airplanes struck the Twin Towers. Unable to drive there himself because the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel was closed, he ran through the tunnel in full firefighting gear. He reached the World Trade Center where he became one of 343 New York City Firefighters to die that day.
Every year in his honor, thousands gather to run the Tunnel to Towers 5K, a run that traces Siller’s steps and not only pays tribute to the first responders who gave their lives for our city, but also raises money for the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, which runs several charitable programs, many aimed at helping wounded veterans.
I can tell you first hand that running the Tunnel to Towers 5K will be one of the best runs you ever do. Even if you’re a cynical New Yorker with no use for first-responder hero worship or nauseated by the way U.S. politicians ruthlessly exploited the attacks, the Tunnel to Towers run will remind you of the enormity of the sacrifice of the people who gave their lives in September 11.
Firefighters from all of the world come to run this 5k, with many of them doing the run in full firefighting gear the way Siller did. There are also people from all the armed forces, disabled veterans, some of whom are running with more than one artificial limb, West Point cadets, police and firefighters from all over the world, and thousands of regular New Yorkers. The Tunnel to Towers Foundation has expanded and there were commemorative runs in eight other cities this year.
The run through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel is crowded to the point where it’s difficult to gather up a good speed. The space is already constricted and then the row of standing plastic road reflectors that divide the lanes make it even more difficult to pass people. When I was running it there were numerous people who climbed up on a pedestrian walk way to try to gather speed. They became smeared with black soot from the exhausts of thousands of cars and managed to run only a short distance before police made them get down.
When you emerge from the tunnel, you will see hundreds of firefighters holding portraits of those lost on September 11th next to another line of firefighters holding 343 American flags. It’s a beautiful sight to behold, and you can’t help but be humbled the enormity of their sacrifice. Along the way the crowds will cheer you on and you’ll see high school bands, rock bands, firefighters and many others.
The Tunnel to Towers Run in New York this year is on Sunday, September 28. Be there.
New York offers many other runs and walks that are for good causes as well. Here are some others:
The TEAL Walk is a 5k run and/or walk that raises money for ovarian cancer research. It’s held in Prospect Park every year. Take public transportation there if you can because trying to find parking near Prospect Park is a herculean task I wish on no one.
The Run for the Wild is held at the Bronx Zoo and raises money for conservation efforts. Your registration fee includes all-day admission to the zoo and discounts on buying things there. It’s a great way to run through the zoo early in the morning and then spend the day there. Good times.