Dulles, Virginia – For only the second time in 18 years, I will not be in New York City this weekend. The annual Tunnel to Towers Run, normally scheduled for the last Sunday in September, is another casualty of COVID. The mayor’s regulations continue to keep businesses closed and tourists away. And with residents moving out, they also seem to have dampened the city’s famous fighting spirit that I first came to know as a student at New York University.
It’s ironic that the Tunnel to Towers Run was forced to cancel, because it is anything but a salute to caution. The event is fun, patriotic, and reflects the tough, never-give-up attitude of New Yorkers. It honors heroes – firefighters, police officers, and first responders who sacrificed their lives for their fellow Americans on September 11, 2001.
Organized by the Tunnel to Towers Foundation, the run pays tribute to firefighter Stephen Siller, who died on 9-11. On that morning, Stephen left Manhattan to meet his brothers on Staten Island. Once he was out of the city, emergency alerts caused him to turn his car around. But traffic was at a standstill, so Stephen retrieved his gear from his car and ran through the Battery Tunnel (now the Hugh Carey Tunnel) to lower Manhattan. He jumped on a rig, was seen running into the World Trade Center, and there he died a hero’s death.
The Tunnel to Towers (T2T) Run retraces Stephen’s gallant path and highlights the 342 other firefighters who also lost their lives that day. It is a beautiful compliment to the somber events of September 11 in which family members read the names of the deceased and shine searchlights into the sky. September 11 is a day of mourning. Tunnel to Towers is a day of defiance to the evil that visited our nation 19 years ago, and a celebration of the virtue that rises from tragedy.
Each year, I’m inspired to see firefighters from across the country as well as allied nations. As we run through the tunnel a chorus of “USA! USA!” inevitably breaks out from proud Americans who saw their country bruised on 9-11 but who refused to let it be broken.
While participants of the T2T Run understand 9-11, today’s high school students weren’t born when the attacks occurred, and their teachers struggle with how best to impart this important piece of history.
To convey this story, each year I attend, I’m accompanied by several college students who receive my organization’s Freedom Alliance scholarship. These scholarships are awarded to the children of military heroes who’ve given life or limb for our country, many of whom sacrificed in the war that resulted from 9-11.
One of these students is further recognized by the T2T Foundation with the Richard Sheirer Memorial Scholarship Award. Now deceased, Sheirer was the Director of NYC’s Office of Emergency Management at the time of the 9-11 attack and organized the complicated rescue and recovery operations at Ground Zero.
The most recent recipients of this award are siblings Seamus Donahue and his sister Bailey. Seamus recently graduated from UNC-Wilmington with a degree in Environmental Science and is a volunteer firefighter in Wrightsville Beach. He’s also a lifeguard and an Eagle Scout. His sister Bailey will graduate in December from UNC-Wilmington with a degree in Public Health and is pursuing a master’s degree in Gerontology.
Their father, Major Michael Donahue, enlisted in the Army in 1996 and then commissioned through Officer Candidate School. He deployed three times and lost his life on September 16, 2014, when a suicide bomber drove into his convoy in Kabul, Afghanistan. Michael was highly decorated and now rests in Arlington National Cemetery. He was a long-distance runner and last year, to honor his father, Seamus ran the Marine Corps Marathon. When he joined me in New York, Seamus wore his firefighter gear as he ran the same route that Stephen Siller ran that fateful morning.
As we toured the 9-11 Memorial & Museum, Seamus and Bailey were filled with questions. They were fascinated by the exhibits and inspired by the stories. They learned the importance of service from their parents. They’ve experienced sacrifice. Last year, when they gathered at the start of the T2T Run, surrounded by tens of thousands of others who lost a loved one, or who narrowly escaped the wreckage, they knew they were not alone.
They saw New York’s fighting spirit. I’m sorry we’ll miss that this year, but I know I’ll return to New York, and New York will show that spirit once again.
Tom Kilgannon is the President of Freedom Alliance, a nonprofit organization that provides support to America’s military families and advocates for a strong national defense. @TomKilgannon3 on Twitter.