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.”
In March of 2001, I saw a procession of people marching behind a fire engine down a street in Greenwich Village. I followed to see what was happening. It was a 90th anniversary commemoration in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, which remains one of the deadliest event of its kind in New York. Firefighters stood at attention near their fire engine as people read the names of the 146 young women who perished.
Less than six months later, the September 11 attacks became the deadliest day in New York City history (displacing not the Triangle Shirtwaist fire but the General Slocum disaster, which killed more than 1,000 people).
What lesson I take from the September 11 attacks is that New York City’s spirit can’t be defeated and that New York City will be here forever.
The crucible of city life creates a population that can’t be broken. While crime is lower, it doesn’t mean survival has gotten easier. People are too busy to be scared, and New York was back up and running in less than a week. We pause to honor the dead but realize it would be an insult to the memory of those lost for us not to continue our lives.
Terrorist work to create fear in a population, which makes it all the more pointless for them to attack New York, a city that overcame collective fear a long time ago.
What we keep from the attacks are the demonstrations of our valor and courage. Every year in September, people come from around the world to run or walk the Tunnel to Towers 5K, which traces the route of Firefighter Stephen Siller, who ran through the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel on September 11th to get to the site of the attacks where he gave his life for our city. Firefighters from every corner of the globe will often run in full firefighting gear as Siller did. If you’ve never taken part in one of these, you owe it to yourself to do. You won’t regret it, I promise you.
One of New York’s greatest punk bands, The Bullys, lost a founding member, Firefighter John Heffernan, in the attacks. Every year they commemorate his life with an awesome punk rock show. The defiant sounds of blaring punk rock and The Bullys incessant musical “fuck you” to all manner of poseurs and pussies defines New York more than weeping and flowers, though those have their place too.
People I had worked with, immigration inspectors at J.F.K. airport, went to Manhattan on their own time to do what they could, people lined up for hours on end to donate blood. New Yorkers stood on the West Side Highway into the wee hours of the morning to thank first responders heading home from long shifts on the pile. These are the images and lessons I remember about New York City from those days.
New York City is older than America. It was a force on this continent before it was even New York. It will still be here two thousand years from now. Live in it to the fullest or leave.
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.