By Jane Koropsak
My feet hit the floor at 4:30 a.m. and for one fleeting moment I wondered why I was up so early on a Sunday morning.
Then, I remembered. Today, Sept. 27, I would participate in the Tunnel to Towers 5K fundraiser in New York City to honor every firefighter who gave the ultimate sacrifice on Sept. 11, 2001, including Stephen Siller, the New York City FDNY firefighter for whom the fundraiser is named.
On that fateful day that changed our nation forever, Siller put on 60 pounds of gear and ran from the Battery Tunnel to the Towers, and 14 years later I was joining thousands of others in retracing his steps.
Duffle bag on my shoulder filled with water, snacks and extra clothes, I headed to the Mastic Fire Department to meet up with some of my colleagues from the Brookhaven Lab and friends from the fire department for our journey to Brooklyn, where the 5K begins.
While waiting for the race to start, standing amid 30,000 people, my eyes teared up during a beautiful rendition of “God Bless America.” The anticipation filled my senses and I wasn’t sure what to expect, as this was my first time at this event. When I saw nearly 7,000 American flags lining the starting line of the race — each flag representing a member of the military who has died for our nation since Sept. 11, 2001 — the tears came once again. It was heart-wrenching.
Soon, we turned a corner and walked under an arch of red, white and blue balloons to start the 5K through the Battery Tunnel. I walked, others ran, and as we all entered the tunnel, we heard hundreds of people chanting “U-S-A, U-S-A” in unison.
Cheerleaders lined the streets. Musicians played on corners. It all gave me goose bumps and prompted me to pick up my pace. Before I knew it, I started running — something I don’t typically do. When we reached the end of the tunnel, we saw streams of sunlight and were greeted by 343 firefighters in their formal uniforms, each holding a flag with an image of a firefighter who perished on 9/11 — 343 heroes who never went home. I proudly high-fived each firefighter standing in line along the route, saying thanks over and over and how much I appreciate all they do every day.
Five kilometers from the start and I was no longer the same person.
When I boarded the bus early that morning I knew how brave these men and women are. I knew that they go to work every day not knowing whether they or a fellow firefighter may not make it home, and I knew that their passion is only felt by a few. You see, I am the sister of an FDNY captain and I am the daughter of a volunteer firefighter who gave the ultimate sacrifice 26 years ago while fighting a fire in my hometown of Sayville. I know personally of their sacrifices and the countless hours they spend training and helping others. During Tunnel to Towers I felt the indescribable deep passion of what it must be like to be a firefighter. And, on the bus ride home, I had time to tuck away the memories of the day for an entry that will have a dog-eared page in my journal.
I salute all of our firefighters, emergency responders, police and military personnel.
I promise I will never forget.
The author works in the Media & Communications Department at Brookhaven National Laboratory.