Tunnel to Towers, Columbia, SC

main stage

It has been a little while since I’ve checked in. It is hard to believe that the injury first occurred over two years ago. Finally I am able to live life and stay relatively active without pain, and after this messy ordeal, that’s a good thing.

I’ve been reluctant to jump back onto the bike until I’m sure of having no setbacks, so instead I’ve been doing a whole lot of walking. Most of the time walking is not exactly interesting (with some exceptions, like a gator story I might tell someday), so the blog has remained dormant for the time being. Fortunately I found a walk that’s extremely interesting and highly personal, so I thought I would share.

Last week I heard about a 5k run to commemorate firefighters who passed during 9/11. Tunnel to Towers is specifically designed to honor the sacrifice of Stephen Siller, who ran from the Lincoln Tunnel to the twin towers in full, heavy firefighting gear. He is a true hero and is worthy of being honored. Yet, for some reason, I hadn’t heard about this event.

Let me backtrack a little bit here.

9/11 is the day in our generation that everyone remembers vividly, sort of like the Kennedy assassination for the baby boomers. I was working from home and didn’t have the TV on. I left to grab some breakfast around mid-morning, and when I ordered, someone at the counter said “Can you belief that we’re under attack?” The first plane had just hit the tower. I rushed home and watched the news and kept it on for hours, shocked and saddened by the tragic events as they happened.

Later in the day I visited my family. I have three younger half-siblings, and they were much younger then. The oldest was 10. They came from my father’s second marriage to a nice lady from Staten Island, NY. This was the ideal step-mother situation, as we got along splendidly nearly from the first time we met. Today I consider her to be a part of the family.

She had three brothers who were all firefighters. One of them was even a Battalion Chief. When we learned that the towers had collapsed and firemen were down there, she was worried that her brothers might have been caught in the wreckage. She made phone call after phone call, trying to account for their whereabouts. She got in touch with two of them, but neither had heard from Jeff, her youngest brother. The night passed, and in the days following, she continued making phone calls trying to find him, to no avail. She heard from her brother that his unit was one of the first in there, and it looked grim.

Jeff didn’t make it. We’ll never know what happened, but we do know that he passed away while saving lives, just like Stephen Siller did. Here is a little more about him.

I had never met Jeff, but because of what happened, I felt like I knew him. He was a young buck, in his mid-twenties, a good boyfriend to his girlfriend who was going to law school, and he and my step-mother were very close. He was a guy I would have liked to have met, and probably would have if that tragic day had never occurred.

It was tough on the kids. They knew Jeff and loved him. I did what I could to comfort them, but they didn’t truly understand.

Since then, the thought of Jeff and the memory of the grieving family has dominated my memories of that tragic day. It’s strange how people react, and I’m not an outwardly emotional person. I hardly ever cry in movies for example, but for awhile, anything 9/11 would strike a chord with me. I avoided movies and documentaries about the subject just because of how painful those memories were.

Time has a way of making things easier. When we visited the 9/11 museum, I made it a point to look at the memorial for Jeff. There were audio recordings from his mother, my step-grandmother, who I have met several times and is a sweet, dear person. It was touching to hear such a familiar voice talk fondly about her lost son.

One day we accidentally walked by the NYFD and stumbled upon images of all the lost firefighters. Jeff was in the picture.

lost firefighters
jeff stark

So when I heard about the 5k, I jumped at the chance.

The crowd was massive. 5k strong!

The crowd was massive. 5k strong!

Even though I’ve been walking for exercise, I was reluctant to sign up for a 5k. Sometimes my own worst enemy is myself and my competitive drive. If I start at a race with the intention of walking or jogging slowly, I may change my mind when people start passing me. This one was safe for a number of reasons. First off, it was massive. Approximately 5,000 people participated, and many of them walked. Second, part of the thrill of the event was the camaraderie and the tribute. I was able to experience plenty while walking around and looking around than if I had run.

Still, I was nervous and I prepared to go slowly. As I began to walk, groups of marching military groups would pass by. At first they walked, and as they got to the starting line, they would jog. They kept a call and response cadence, some of which were serious, others fun and lighthearted. I felt privileged to walk among them.

military marching

The most special event came a short while later. As we made a turn, we saw a line of people holding up pictures. I immediately recognized them from the NYFD. I made my way across the street between the marching military columns and looked at each of the signs in order to pay tribute. Then lo and behold, Jeff’s face showed up. I stood dead in my tracks. “That’s my uncle-in-law!” I shouted to the nice young lady. I was moved and even choked up when I saw him there. I asked if she would pose for a picture, and of course she obliged. Later I found out that these were all USC students who stood out there holding the signs. Thank you, students.

Jeffrey Stark

Jeffrey Stark, hero

As I continued walking, I made it a point to look at every other sign. I could only afford a quick glance at each, but that was enough. These firefighters were all heroes, and they all had families like mine.

Another benefit of walking was I was able to share pavement with many of the firefighters who were walking in full, heavy gear. I cannot imagine how difficult it was to walk with them. As I passed them, I made sure to let them know how much I respected what they were doing.

firefighter walking

Along the entire course were onlookers cheering us on, giving us high fives as we passed. Many of them carried American flags, and they contributed to both the excitement and the patriotism of the event. Even though we were paying tribute to a tragic event in history, the mood was jubilant, patriotic and everyone was full of resolve. The time for mourning has passed. We were celebrating their heroism.

I found out later that someone had officially run for Jeff in the New York event of this race. Next year I will make it a point to officially run for Jeff here. And next time I will run.


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