When NYFD firefighter Stephen Siller rushed to the World Trade Center the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, he found the way blocked – the Brooklyn Battery Bridge was closed to traffic.
So the Rockville Center native, draped in 60 pounds of gear, left his car behind and ran to Ground Zero, where he later died with 10 other members of his squad.
On Sunday, four Great Neck Vigilant firefighters retraced Siller’s steps in the Tunnel to Towers charity race.
Clad in their own fire gear, U.S. Merchant Marine Academy midshipmen Daniel Gillis, Bryan Diffley, Sam Green and David Baker took part in the 5K run to raise money for programs that benefit first responders, injured veterans and their families.
“It’s a great tribute to all the heroes who died in the attacks and in all the wars since then,” said Green, 20, a Virginia native and EMT.
Like Siller, the Great Neck Vigilant firefighters ran the route in fire equipment, which Gillis and Diffley said would be a new experience.
The three midshipmen began fundraising a week before the race, and said that they had raised about $3,000 as of Friday.
“Back in Wisconsin, my mom sent [donation appeals] out to everyone,” said Gillis, 24, who entered the academy after serving in the U.S. Navy.
The Tunnel to Towers Foundation was founded in 2002, and its flagship New York City race has grown from relatively humble beginnings to approximately 13,000 participants last year, according to Gillis.
This year’s race has raised $1.2 million – money that will support the foundation’s charitable programs, including building homes for injured veterans, and the NYC Firefighter Burn Center Foundation.
The race has a personal meaning to their firehouse.
FDNY firefighter Jonathan Ielpi, a volunteer at Great Neck Vigilant,also died while responding to the Sept. 11 attacks.
“I grew up in a family of firefighters,” said Diffley, a 22-year-old midshipman from Mattituck. “It kind of hits close to home, being from New York.”
For Green, Gillis and Diffley, working to help fellow first responders is a way of doing their part for what they described as a kind of brotherhood.
“We’ve all been doing this for three years cooing down to the firehouse,” said Gillis. “We’re very proud to give back to the community.”
“For me, the fire house is like my second home,” added Green.
After the race, Gillis told the Great Neck News that the race was “one of the most amazing experiences of my life.”
“The sense of support and camaraderie we witnesses with the 30,000 plus runners and walkers in the run, along with the FDNY, NYPD and thousands of spectators who lined the streets to cheer us on, left me near speechless,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Seeing multiple wounded warriors, some who are quadruple amputees, make the run and go all-out was one of the most motivating and awe-inspiring things I’ve ever seen.”