We are less than a month away from annual tributes to the September 11 attacks, and for a few tense days it looked like one of the most enduring traditions around the commemoration, the Tribute in Light—two columns of light projected from lower Manhattan close to where the Twin Towers were located—may not go on.
The National September 11 Memorial & Museum, which puts on the display, said it would have to cancel it over concerns for worker safety around the Coronavirus. The museum stated it didn’t have the financial support it needed to ensure the safety of the workers who would assemble and maintain the lights, and had made a contingency plan that replaced the traditional Twin Tower lights with other skyline observances on the night of September 11. There was a typical tabloid and internet-fueled outrage, and after securing funding promises from New York State, the museum reversed course and announced that the tribute will go on as planned.
It is a moving tribute that can be seen from the farthest reaches of the five boroughs and beyond: the night sky aglow with the ghostly shadow of our city’s loss. It is a sign of New York City’s resolve to create something beautiful out of tragic beginnings, and not forget the tremendous loss of that day even as we keep going.
Nearly 3,000 people died in the attacks; the largest loss of life in a single day since the General Slocum ship disaster of 1904. This past April, the death toll from the COVID-19 outbreak in New York City exceeded 4,000, surpassing the deaths from the September 11 attacks.
The Tribute in Light though, is additionally tragic because it also shines a light on our failure to rebuild properly. We have allowed Islamic fundamentalists to remake our greatest city. Every time we look at New York’s skyline, we see the work of murderous savages who thought Allah was commanding them to kill children and babies. I’m sure the new World Trade Center is a fine building; it certainly looks grand. But it’s not two Twin Towers. The Tribute in Light highlights our failures to stand up for ourselves.
When the towers fell, I thought for certain that our country would stand for nothing less than two new Twin Towers, maybe a few feet taller than the originals. That was the only proper rebuilding response to the terror attacks, and we made a hash of it.
The towers of light are what we have left, and the thought of not even having that was too much for some people. We cannot get people to wear masks and now we can’t pay tribute to September 11 victims because we cannot muster the resources to keep workers safe. If we can’t even shine lights into the sky, what has become of us?
New Yorkers have been living with the Coronavirus pandemic longer than anywhere outside of China. There’s a deep hunger for anything that is remotely normal. Any time we can safely do the normal human things we used to do; we’ll do it.
The Tribute in Light will be back this year; please think of those who we lost nearly two decades ago and the sacrifices so many made that day. It will be a moment of beauty in the midst of a lot of ugly.
I was in California on September 11, 2001. I was there for work in a hotel room getting ready to go to a conference the company I worked for was putting on. I heard someone pass by my hotel room door talking on a cell phone saying someone had flown a plane into the World Trade Center. By the time I turned on the television, the South Tower had already collapsed and a plane had already crashed into the Pentagon. I knew right away that our country was under attack and I felt helpless and angry. I watched the North Tower collapse in my boxer shorts with shaving cream all over my face.
My story is not unique. I’m among the millions of New Yorkers who watched savages destroy thousands of innocent lives and remake our skyline. But hand-in-hand with the horror and anger is the unrivaled admiration for the first responders that gave their lives and showed that people could be at their best when things were at their worst.
One of those first responders was Stephen Siller, a firefighter who ran through the Brooklyn – Battery Tunnel to get to the Trade Center on the day of the attacks and perished in the South Tower collapse.
The event loses none of its effect if you’ve done it before and if you haven’t done it, you should.
The run begins with a lot of waiting around. For an event this large, it is well-organized but it still means large, slow-moving crowds. The run ceremony began at 9 and the run officially starts at 9:30 a.m. I was in Wave C, the third wave of runners, and I didn’t cross the START line until 10 a.m.
First responder groups, corporate groups, school groups, teams of family members paying tribute to their fallen loved ones, college students there for fun and adventure—almost every kind of city denizen is present at the 5k. Firefighters come from all over the world to run in homage to Siller, many of them doing it in their heavy firefighting gear. This is no easy task in the Indian summer heat.
Standing around waiting in the hot sun will get you tired before the race begins, and then the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel is very hot and crowded. People who had every intention of running may find themselves on the sidelines walking, with others trying to get around them. It’s a bad jostle but a jovial one, with chants of U.S.A.! U.S.A.! breaking out spontaneously throughout the passage.
The Tunnel to Towers run and walk is perhaps the largest gathering in the city that can still generate massive amounts of goodwill and cooperation. Runners and first responders thanked one another. There were high fives and handshakes all around. Despite tens of thousands of people constantly bumping into one another and stepping on one another’s feet, I heard no harsh words uttered and saw no arguments; try finding that on your average subway commute.
The sacrifices of those who gave their lives on September 11, 2001 cannot be sullied by contemporary political strife or bent to serve a narrow purpose. These sacrifices are heroism in their truest and purest form, and the solemn honors we pay to those heroes help give our city a form of peace.
A friend who lost two cousins in the Trade Center attacks did the run today – and raised $10,000 for the Stephen Siller Foundation this year alone—had this to say afterward:
“Today I saw love and beauty, respect and pride, camaraderie and patriotism. I saw love. Everywhere. I didn’t see dissent. Hatred. Anger. I saw love. And for that, I’m truly grateful.”
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.