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In New York, Retracing A Fallen Hero's Last Steps

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Thousands of New Yorkers annually retrace firefighter Stephen Siller's last steps. On Sept. 11, 2001, Siller found himself on the wrong side of the Battery Tunnel. Though he was off duty, he joined a firefighting squad at Ground Zero and his family never saw him again.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

On the morning of September 11th back in 2001, an off-duty Brooklyn firefighter named Stephen Siller wanted to help in Manhattan. He got in his car but found the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel already closed, so he threw his fire gear on his back and ran nearly a mile through the tunnel toward the World Trade Center. He later died there. This past Sunday, more than 17,000 people gathered in Brooklyn for a run retracing Stephen Siller's path. From New York, Diantha Parker reports.

DIANTHA PARKER: Among hundreds of runners in shorts and tees, groups of firefighters, police officers and armed forces personnel really stand out. Some wear helmets, rubberized canvas jackets and pants. Others have rucksacks and fatigues and flak jackets. Nearly all have heavy boots. They're doing this the way Stephen Siller did, carrying up to 85 pounds of clothing and gear. His cousin, John Hodge, is one of many relatives who organized the run. He's a theater producer, not a firefighter, but he's tried to put himself in Stephen's place.

Mr. JOHN HODGE (Stephen Siller's Cousin; Theater Producer): A couple of years ago, I went through the tunnel with my daughter on my back, a young girl, 35, 40 pounds. I was only walking, and let me tell you, it was brutal.

PARKER: Over the past seven years, the race has gone international. Tom Middleton's navy T-shirt says "London Fire Brigade." He's retired now and isn't in his gear, but he brought 150 colleagues across the pond to run this weekend, so some of them are suited up.

Mr. TOM MIDDLETON (Retired Firefighter, London): They say that you leave the job, but the job never leaves you. I was just so moved by what Stephen did. I have two sons, one's a fireman, one's a cop, and so it (unintelligible) for me. But I'm wearing a bobby's hat because my son couldn't be here today.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Unintelligible) with a white (unintelligible) come to my left.

PARKER: Stephen Siller's own backstory is well known to the runners. Orphaned at age 10, raised by five brothers and sisters, he's survived by his own five children and his wife, Sally. The Tunnel to Towers 5Ks have raised more than $4 million for burn centers and for the Siller family's foundation for kids who've lost parents. The tunnel is eerily lit and smells of exhaust. When the runners come out, they're on a highway with no cars and few spectators.

(Soundbite of people clapping)

PARKER: But along the road on either side, 343 New York firefighters in dress uniform are standing silently, holding American flags, and each wears a large black-and-white photo of a colleague who died on 9/11, the three forty-three, as they're called.

(Soundbite of music)

PARKER: At the finish line, it starts pouring rain. Many of the folks in gear are red-faced, but they put on a burst of speed. A young woman in London's uniform beams and raises her arms.

(Soundbite of music and people clapping)

Unidentified Woman #2: I don't know your name, but I know you're looking good.

PARKER: The runners pass the site of the towers and turn a corner. They peel off layers of canvas and rubber and head for the free food. But they make way and applaud for the representatives of the three-forty-three who are filing through the crowd and away from Ground Zero. For NPR News, I'm Diantha Parker in New York.

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