Running on: Tunnel to Towers back in full stride with annual 5K honoring 9/11 first responders

Thousands retraced the final footsteps of deceased New York City Firefighter Stephen Siller — one of the 343 firefighters killed in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks — during the annual Tunnel to Towers Foundation run/walk on Sept. 26.

The annual event was back on in full scale after public participation was cancelled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic; members of the Siller family kept the tradition alive that year in a joint walk through the tunnel with the MTA.

Sunday’s run/walk raised funds for the Tunnel to Towers Foundation, the nonprofit founded by Firefighter Siller’s brother, Frank Siller, provides assistance to first responders and their loved ones.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Firefighter Siller ran through the Hugh Carey (Brooklyn-Battery) Tunnel, carrying 60 pounds of equipment for 3.4 miles to the World Trade Center site, where he perished in the collapse.

Images of those who perished on Sept. 11 2001 were showcased to runners as motivation. Photo by Dean Moses

“Today we are all here together retracing heroic footsteps,” said Jeanna Dellaragione, executive vice president of the Tunnel to Towers Foundation. “It’s such a beautiful day where we honor the sacrifices of our heroes that give us our freedom and they fight for our country and our communities every day putting their lives on the line. We just want to give back and honor them.” 

Commencing on Sunday morning at Van Brunt Street and Hamilton Avenue in Brooklyn, some 30,000 joggers signed up to dash to the finish line on Vesey and West Streets in Lower Manhattan, including an abundance of firefighters who slogged forth in their helmets and bunker gear.

The event kicked-off in several parts, with the early walk and run with heroes injured in the line of duty followed by NYPD runners led by top cop Police Commissioner Dermot Shea, who told amNewYork Metro that the journey was an emotional one for him.

NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea led the officers in the 9/11 memorial run/walk. Photo by Dean Moses

“It certainly is, but especially as you come through the tunnel and you see members today holding the pictures and you put yourself in that place where those members running through that tunnel was just really emotional,” Shea said. “It’s really important that we never forget the sacrifice of those that have come before and Tunnel to Towers is such a great organization that doesn’t forget and puts its money where its mouth is and takes care of families of police officers, firefighters, and servicemen. I’m eternally grateful for them.”

Before the firefighters assembled on the starting line, the first responders formed up for the unveiling of a sculpture by Staten Island artist Scott LoBaido. Depicting an NYPD officer and a firefighter clutching one another, the pair knelt at the remnants of the collapsed Twin Towers of the World Trade Center as smoke bellowed around them.

With this striking image fresh in their minds, a battalion of FDNY members started the marathon with thousands of other participants following swiftly behind them.

A sculpture by Staten Island artist Scott LoBaido. Photo by Dean Moses

Aleksa Klimas-Mikalauskas donned her full firefighter uniform as she participated in the run in honor of all of those before.  

“It honors all of the people that inspired a whole generation of first responders to do what they are doing,” Klimas-Mikalauskas said. “That was what we saw as we became adults. It was our inspiration.” 

The annual 9/11 memorial run/walk retraces the final steps of FDNY firefighter Stephen Siller and countless other first responders. Photo by Dean Moses
“Never forget,” was the message on many participants minds. Photo by Dean Moses

Although Klimas-Mikalauskas was 17 years old during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the devastation of that day and witnessing the bravery of service men and women inspired her to work as a volunteer firefighter, police officer, and even a paramedic. 

“I’ve been doing this for a few years. It’s not an easy run, especially not in gear. So, it really makes you understand how rough it was to do it on that day and then to still go and work and do exactly what you needed to do,” Klimas-Mikalauskas said. 

At the finish line, exhausted runners were directed to an area where they were treated to free food, refreshments, and music.

One man proudly painted FDNY on his face. Photo by Dean Moses
From Brooklyn to Manhattan, the annual run honors first responders. Photo by Dean Moses
A firefighter gives a thumbs up as he reaches the finish line. Photo by Dean Moses