Syracuse firefighters run on hallowed ground to honor the sacrifice of 9/11 heroes
By Ed Griffin-Nolan
There’s a lot of talk lately about the New York City-Syracuse connection, most of it having to do with Syracuse University football maybe playing more games in the Meadowlands and the Orangemen hoops squad playing home games at Madison Square Garden. The switch from the Big East to the Atlantic Coast Conference makes for interesting barroom chatter, but last weekend a different team from the ’Cuse hit the Big Apple in a contest with much higher, real-life stakes.
The Syracuse Fire Department sent a team of 30 firefighters to run through the Battery Tunnel from Brooklyn to lower Manhattan in tribute to New York City firefighter Stephen Siller. This was the fourth year Syracuse’s bravest participated in the Tunnel to Towers race, and the SFD, thanks to lots of community support, raised more money for Siller’s cause than any other team.
“Our goal was $10,000,” says Lt. Tim Barclay, who ran the 5K race this year for the third time. “It looks like we will get over $15,000. The community really stepped up.”
On Sept. 11 they accepted donations during a daylong silent memorial at the Milton J. Rubenstein Museum of Science and Technology, and collected donations from shoppers at Carousel Center. Half of the money raised goes to the foundation Siller’s family set up to honor his memory, half of it comes back to Central New York in support of the Clark Burn Center at Upstate Hospital.
Syracusans weren’t just asked to toss money in the hat. They were also given a chance to sign a large greeting card for the people of New York City and FDNY, which the firefighters carried with them to present at a Manhattan firehouse.
Ted Ackerman wasn’t even a firefighter 10 years ago when Stephen Siller and 342 other New York City firefighters sacrificed their lives at the World Trade Center. He was a recent Le Moyne graduate with a business degree, but what he saw that day turned him in a different direction. In 2007, the Rev. Phil Kelly, a longtime friend of Siller’s brother Russ, asked Ackerman a question that changed his life.
“Friar Phil came and asked me if I knew who Stephen Siller was,” says Ackerman. “I didn’t know, and he told me this story. It was unbelievable. This guy wasn’t even at work. He could have stayed at home and watched it on TV like everyone else.”
Siller didn’t go home that day. He was on his way to play golf. Instead he turned around and drove toward the towers. When traffic was stopped in Brooklyn, he parked his truck, hoisted his fire gear, ran through the tunnel and into the inferno consuming lower Manhattan. Since Stephen Siller died his family has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for causes that include many children’s charities and hospital burn units. Most of that money is raised in the annual Tunnel to Towers run, which this year drew nearly 25,000 runners, including firefighters from all over the world.
Prompted by Friar Phil, who died in 2009, Ackerman made an exploratory trip to see the race in 2006. “I went down, and when I came back I said, ‘Guys, you won’t believe this.’” He speaks with reverence of the surviving Sillers (orphaned at 10, Stephen Siller was one of seven children and the father of five). “The Siller family are all humble people,” he says. “They’ve quit their jobs just to do this charity work. They got Rudy Giuliani to be the chair of it. Giuliani calls the head of the Port Authority and says, ‘Can you close the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel?’ and the guy says nobody can close the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and Giuliani says, ‘Let me tell you about Stephen Siller.’ And they close the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel every year for this race.”
Barclay remembers the first year he participated, and was given the assignment to hold a photo of one of the fallen firefighters. “When you come out of the tunnel there are thousands of uniformed firefighters holding flags and photographs of the heroes, and I was one of those holding a photograph. And a guy with a flag comes up to me and says that the man in the picture I was holding was his best friend, and could he hold that photograph. Well, of course, and I took the flag and I was so moved by the whole thing that I decided next year I was going to be part of it.”
Syracuse Fire Chief Mark McLees, who did duty at Ground Zero in the aftermath of 9/11, is proud of his men for their willingness to take on the challenge of the Siller race. “Everybody wanted to help back then,” McLees says. “They wanted to hop in their cars and go. The Stephen Siller story is just so awesome. The image of Stephen Siller is huge; it’s something that we embrace, and this is our way of being part of that. Our guys are not spectators, they are doers.”
“There’s huge community support in New York City for Syracuse,” says Ackerman. “We wear our T-shirts as we run, and we get hollered at and get high-fives all the time as we’re running.” Nonetheless, Ackerman thinks this year may have been the peak of public interest and giving to the cause that means so much to him: his firefighting brethren and burn victims. “Given that this is the 10th anniversary,” he says, “we think it will probably decline from here.”
There’s still time to prove him wrong.
Donations in the name of the Syracuse Fire Department team can be made by going to tunneltotowers.org. Click on the “fundraise” tab and make your donation in the name of the Syracuse Fire Department.
Read Ed Griffin-Nolan’s award-winning commentary weekly in the Syracuse New Times. You can contact him at edgriffin@ twcny.rr.com.