The runners reached the part of the track called the Battery Park North Esplanade. It looks out at the Hudson River where a fire boat shoots water from its nozzles. A rainbow reflects off the droplets.
“That’s awesome,” a runner said when he saw the rainbow, so vibrant it almost looked fake.
Tom Guarnieri, Jess Vaccaro and Fredrick Kirk, three Port Authority Police officers, stop to take in the scene. The meaning of the rainbow, a symbol of hope, is not lost on the runners.
They’re five minutes from the finish line.
They were among the thousands who ran the Tunnel to Towers 5k on Sept. 26, honoring the final steps of FDNY firefighter Stephen Siller and to pay homage to all the first responders and service members who made and continue to make sacrifices in the line of duty.
Siller made the ultimate sacrifice on Sept. 11, 2001 after strapping 60 pounds of gear on his back and racing through the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel, on foot, to get to the Twin Towers, where he spent his last moments saving others.
“I’m doing this to honor those who passed away on 9/11 and because I think it was great what Stephen did, how he went into the tunnel and wanted to be there. It’s sad- the sacrifice he made,” said Colleen Perrone who ran the 5k on Sunday.
The Hugh L. Carey Tunnel spans 1.7 miles, connecting Red Hook Brooklyn to Manhattan’s financial district. The underwater tunnel is a humid, dull space with dark blue ceilings and white walls painted with pale, yellow stripes. Its fluorescent lights shine down on the concrete path, guiding the runners’ strides as patriotic music echoes against the concrete dome.
“Coming out of the tunnel and looking up, you see it’s a beautiful day, but Stephen’s vision was of two towers on fire,” said Port Authority Police Officer Kirk. “You get the chills.”
At the exit of the tunnel, One World Trade Center gleamed that Sunday, bluer against the blue sky. Police officers, firefighters and military personnel cheer from the sidelines, holding American flags and banners with the names and faces of the first responders who lost their lives during the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The race route was lined with 343 banners, for each firefighter who died on 9/11, 37 for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police Department and 23 for the New York City Police Department first responders who died that day.
“Everybody responding that day, they saw everybody running away from the area, but they had to run toward it and help people, and they didn’t second guess anything,” said Vaccaro, a Port Authority Police officer.
Black letters on the back of Guarnieri’s white shirt read “Lawrence Guarnieri.” On Sunday, Guarnieri ran for the sixth time to honor his father, Lawrence, who was a first responder on 9/11 and part of the clean up after. His father died in 2014 from cancer that he developed after helping with search and recovery efforts at the World Trade Center.
“I think it’s great to keep their memory alive,” Guarnieri said. “We come here and people see the name on the shirt. I get to tell some stories about him, and it’s just good to always talk about.”
An inspiration to serve, to run
Guarnieri was 11 when his dad responded to 9/11 as a PAPD officer. He said he remembers not knowing if his dad was alive until he pulled into the driveway that night, covered in debris.
“When I was growing up I always thought very highly of my dad,” Guarnieri said. “I like to have that same feeling of ‘you’re making a difference’ at work everyday.”
Both Kirk and Guarnieri were inspired by their dads to become police officers.
Kirk was seven when his dad, an FDNY firefighter, was called in to respond to the attacks.
“The towers fell, and we didn’t hear from him,” Kirk said. “There was no service. All of a sudden, I remember the phone rang at 11 at night and my dad said he was coming home. Thank God he made it home that day.”
Kirk said it’s an honor to help serve and protect people now too.
The start line
Kaitlyn Cardone, a PAPD officer, pinned the red piece of paper to her shirt with four safety pins. She’s number 7698, a “Wave ‘A’ Runner,” according to the bib. Cardone arrived at the Ikea parking lot in Red Hook Brooklyn at 8:41 a.m. There, she gathered with her team- other Port Authority Police Department officers.
Cardone ran for Donald Foreman, a PAPD officer who died responding to the attacks.
“I met his family on 9/11 at an event a couple years ago and they were just the sweetest, nicest people. I would love to represent him today,” Cardone said. Adding, “If it were me, I’d want someone to run for me. We are celebrating them and their sacrifice.”
At 9:00 a.m. Guarnieri, Vaccaro and Kirk start to make their way to the start line after posing for a group photo with the other PAPD officers. The start line is a short walk from the Ikea parking lot, but the crowd is so dense, the walk slows to a crawl.
Guarnieri pulls out a pin from his black athletic shorts and hands it to Vaccaro who pins it on her shirt, showing it to Guarnieri for approval. On the pin is the face of a young woman, her name is written in cursive on the bottom- Caitlin Nelson.
Vaccaro ran for officer James Nelson who was from her hometown in New Jersey. He responded to 9/11 and “made the ultimate sacrifice that day,” Vaccaro said. Caitlin was Nelson’s daughter. Caitlin, 20, died in 2017. Vaccaro wore the pin in her honor.
By 9:20 a.m. the three were at a standstill in the middle of the road at 31 Richards Street, across from the FDNY Engine 202/Ladder 101/Battalion 32 fire station.
“Is there an express lane?” Guarnieri asked, jokingly.
Moments later, the first wave of runners took off for the tunnel. But Guarnieri, Vaccaro and Kirk still had to walk a couple blocks to reach the start line.
It’s 9:45 a.m. the group’s shoes finally take to the pavement. It’s a short run around the bend to the entrance of the tunnel. Five minutes pass and the group is already inside. Fluorescent lights shine down on the faces of the runners. Beads of sweat begin to form on Guarnieri’s forehead. Patriotic music fills the tunnel.
Meghan Condon ran the 5k on Sunday. Her uncle was a firefighter who passed away from cancer after helping in the post 9/11 cleanup. She said hearing people chant “USA” as they ran through the tunnel was amazing.
By 10 a.m. fatigue has started to set in, but Guarnieri, Vaccaro and Kirk keep running.
Guarnieri and Vaccaro break from their run at 10:05 but only for a few seconds before picking up the pace again. Kirk leads the group. At 10:07 there is light at the end of the 1.7 mile long tunnel.
“I always thought about how Stephen did that run, that day, running toward danger, and he just did it anyway without even questioning it,” Guarnieri said. Thinking about Stephen helped Guarnieri keep running even when it was tough, he said.
At the exit, the cool, 65 degree air greets the runners and dries their sweat. On the right side of the track, PAPD officers hold the banners of the fallen officers.
Vaccaro stops to see Nelson’s banner.
“It was nice to meet the family that I was running for, and I want them to know that they have a PAPD family behind them, and we will never forget,” Vaccaro said. Adding, “It’s an honor to wear the same uniform that they wore and to represent them on this day, and we will always remember them.”
The last leg
Firefighters, police officers and military personnel, along with other volunteers, line the track to cheer the runners on: “Almost there.” “You can do it.”
Roseanne Murphy, who ran in the 5k for the first time on Sunday, said it was motivating and inspiring to be cheered on by a “sea of people” throughout the run. Murphy’s brother-in-law, Gerry Nevins, 46, died on 9/11. He was a first responder with the FDNY.
“Don’t stop now,” the crowd cheered.
Vaccaro, Guarnieri and Kirk don’t even stop for water. They only pause to say ‘hi’ to their PAPD friends who cheer for them from the sidelines.
The three reach the part of the run that passes by the Hudson River. Droplets from the water are carried by the wind, spraying the passing runners with a cool, refreshing mist. They pause to take in the view of the rainbow stretching out over the river.
They keep going.
Rounding the corner to the finish line, they run faster, crossing the mark at 10:23 a.m.
“Today is such a great day to honor those who have fallen,” Kirk said.
The PAPD had over 100 people running on their team. Most were officers and their family members. Including families of the officers who died responding on 9/11.
Guarnieri said when the PAPD announced that they were running in the event for the 37 fallen, people “jumped at it,” they wanted to be a part of it.
“With our team nobody hesitated,” Guarnieri said. Cardone added, “ It was like a faucet we couldn’t turn off.”
After the race, the three headed to Vesey Street to partake in the post run BBQ and concert which included free food, drinks and live entertainment. The group couldn’t wait to eat some BBQ ribs.