The weather for the 2016 15th annual Tunnel to Towers 5K was much like it was on 9/11/2001; brilliant sunshine, blue, blue skies, with a hint of autumn in the air. My good friend Ron from Airborne Tri Team invited me to join the team and participate in this event. The 5K was established in memory of NYC firefighter Stephen Siller who, having just finished his shift on 9/11/2001, had heard on his scanner that a plane hit the Twin Towers. Stephen returned to the firehouse for his gear and drove to the entrance of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, but it had already been closed for security purposes. Determined to carry out his duty, he strapped 60 lbs. of gear to his back and raced on foot through the tunnel to the Twin Towers, where he lost his life while saving others.
The course of this 5k event re-traces Stephen’s footsteps. As it probably would be for many, I knew this event would be an emotional rollercoaster, however, I didn’t anticipate the reasons for two of my sobbing breakdowns while on this course. As I started walking through the tunnel, expectedly, my tears flowed as I was imagining what it must have been like for Stephen, not knowing what lay ahead of him or if he thought that this might be his final life saving effort.
My Steve (who took his own life on 3/15/2015) was passionate about helping others and had passed the FDNY test in the 1980s, however, he did not join when called, probably because I discouraged him. I told him that I would always worry if he would come home alive after working a shift. Steve always had regrets about not joining FDNY and ironically, I would try to console him by saying he may have perished in 9/11 if he did join FDNY when called.
Steve was a Jones Beach lifeguard for many years, so when I saw someone who could have been Steve’s contemporary wearing a Jones Beach lifeguard shirt on the 5K course, I came along side him and asked if he knew Steve. I was hoping perhaps he had a happy memory he could share with me about Steve. When he acknowledged that he knew Steve and I told him who I was (Steve’s 33 year life partner), I sensed his immediate discomfort by the look on his face and it seemed he couldn’t get away from me fast enough and for the second time (I was not expecting this breakdown) on the course, my tears started flowing. Of course, this lifeguard’s reaction could be my imagination since I was in such a highly charged emotional state. However, I doubt it, since it is not uncommon for people to be uncomfortable when they are reminded of the suicide of someone they knew. To this day, I believe some former friends avoid me for this reason. In speaking with other suicide survivors, I have learned this avoidance is more common than I thought and it is always very painful for us. We need re-assurance that our lost loved ones EXISTED. A hug or a simple “I am so sorry for your loss” is often more than enough for us. When people avoid us, it is so heartbreaking. Most of us want to talk about our loved ones and hear stories from others about them. I know I still cry when talking about Steve, so many people think talking about Steve is painful for me, however, I am like most suicide survivors in that we want to talk about our lost loved ones.
As I exited the tunnel and was getting closer to the 5K finish line, for the third time, my tears started to flow. Once in Manhattan, members of NYPD and FDNY were standing on the side of the course, each holding a banner with a photo of a 9/11 fallen first responder. So many lives were lost that day by those who selflessly sacrificed their own life so that others could survive.
Surprisingly, my final tears fell at the finish line, but they were tears of joy. Seeing the resiliency and the rebuilding of lower Manhattan and realizing that we will never forget those who lost their lives after such a tragic event touched my soul. My emotional experiences at this 5K turned out to be like a metaphor for me in that I hope that someday I can rely on my own resilience to re-build myself after the tragedy of losing the love of my life and that people will never forget my Steve.