I almost let the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack pass unnoticed. What with the pandemic, upcoming elections, fires in California, and seven tropical systems spinning in the Atlantic, I had little bandwidth left to focus on a date in history. If it wasn’t for my son’s participation in the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Run/Climb event in Biloxi, Mississippi, I might have overlooked the day of the worst assault on our homeland in my lifetime.
My wife and I got up early to see our son start a 5k run along the beach followed by an 88-flight climb up and down a hotel stairwell. It was a beautiful day with a slight drop in humidity, a teasing of fall. At the starting line, a large American flag hung from a hook-and-ladder truck. The National Anthem played over the PA system while a hundred or so runners queued up, hand over heart. In the back of the pack were a dozen firemen and women in full suits and hats, some with air tanks strapped on, recreating what Stephen Siller NYFD did before he lost his life in the service of others at the World Trade Center.
After a siren started the race, we wandered back toward the finish line to await the arrival of our son, who chose to run with a twenty-pound backpack. Near the end of the course was a wall about eight feet tall and forty feet long, constructed as a memorial to the 343 firefighters, 72 law enforcement officers, and 55 military members who lost their lives on 9/11. The hundreds of photographs of these first responders, looking into the camera at a time before America could even imagine such a tragedy could cross our shores, struck me—stuck me hard.
At a time when our cities are being looted and burned, and our first responders are vilified and degraded, I was hit with a fresh wind of American Pride and reminded that there are good people in this country, then and now, who would lay down their lives to protect mine.
The front runners started to pass on the back end of the 5k course. Then two runners approached, each carrying a five-foot flagpole. One held the familiar Thin Blue Line Flag commemorating the men and women of law enforcement, the other held a flag I had never seen in-person before, a Thin Red Line Flag, celebrating our brave firefighters. Our son passed, finishing the run portion with a sprint (perhaps for our benefit) before heading over to the stairs.
We then watched the participants emerge from the bottom of the stairwell after their 88-floor climb. After the “civilians,” in nylon shorts, tank tops, and running shoes, finished exhausted and gathered with friends for celebratory photos in front of the firetrucks, the firemen and women exited the building, dripping sweat in their Nomex fire suits and rubber boots. It was only then when the job was done that I saw a firefighter remove his hat, drop his air tank, and take a knee. May we never forget.
P.S. Our son and his twenty-pound pack finished the entire race, including the climb.