For firefighter Lt. Dana Cinotto, standing at the starting line of the inaugural Stephen Siller Tunnel To Towers Foundation 5K Run and Walk in Jefferson City was an experience she would never forget.
“There is a sense of pride when you are in your gear and you are taking off from a starting line and have your fellow firefighters around you. You know you are doing a good thing,” she said.
Two fellow volunteer firefighters from the Russellville-Lohman Fire Protection District joined Cinotto on that walk, all dressed in about 60 pounds of full gear. No matter how much her feet were in pain, she was determined to finish the race, just like late New York City firefighter Stephen Siller did when he ran in his full gear about the distance of a 5K through the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel to the World Trade Center Twin Towers on 9/11.
“I would have been the last person, two hours late. You just don’t quit on something like that. They did it, they died doing it,” Cinotto said.
One hundred and seventy-eight participants joined together last year to honor Siller and the 343 New York City firefighters who lost their lives on 9/11, as well as show support of all first responders and military protecting Americans.
Cinotto, members of the Jefferson City, Cole County and South Callaway fire protection districts, and many others have made plans to participate in the second annual Stephen Siller Tunnel To Towers Foundation 5K Run and Walk at 9 a.m. Sept. 16 at the Capitol in Jefferson City.
For years something had pulled at Jefferson City resident Roxy Van Pool’s heart; she wanted to find a way to give back and make a difference in her community.
She did not know anyone who died in the 9/11 attacks. Until recently she did not personally know first responders or firefighters, and even though she and her husband had raised three daughters, none of them were in the military.
Van Pool’s first encounter with the Tunnel To Towers Foundation came through organizing an annual employee charitable contribution campaign at her employer of 22 years, IBM in Columbia. The guest speaker at the event was U.S. Marine Cpl. Todd Nicely, a quadruple amputee who received a personally designed smart home at Lake of the Ozarks from Tunnels To Towers Foundation and Gary Sinise Foundation.
On the evening of Sept. 11, 2014, Van Pool was watching 9/11 coverage on the History Channel, prompting her to learn more online. She landed on the story of Siller, a 34-year-old firefighter and married father of five who decided to go back and grab his gear, race through the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and courageously lost his life doing his job on 9/11 in New York City.
“When I started learning more about Stephen Siller, his story, reading about so many of the tragedies on 9/11 and the families of everyone who died that day, but in particular the first responders, I knew I wanted to get involved.” she said.
Van Pool and her youngest daughter, Melissa, decided to participate in the 2015 Tunnel to Towers 5K Run/Walk in New York City. Outside of sightseeing and visiting the 9/11 memorial and museum, the women were deeply moved while at the event alongside more than 30,000 participants.
“Hearing the chants of U.S.A., patriotic music, firefighters running and walking in their gear … I was obviously in tears much of the time. As we ran and eventually walked out of the tunnel, I was not prepared for the sight of the firefighters in their dress uniforms with the signs of all their fallen brothers, it pushed me on,’” she said.
Van Pool could not get that weekend out of her mind. She thought about Nicely and Jefferson City veteran Tyler Huffman’s smart homes built through the support of Tunnel To Towers Foundation’s Building For America’s Bravest program. She later received an email from the foundation looking for volunteers to help expand the 5K series. Van Pool responded immediately, organizing the inaugural Tunnel To Towers 5K in Jefferson City last September around the 15th anniversary of 9/11.
“So often I speak to a group or make a phone call and they don’t know about the foundation or Building For America’s Bravest, so this is a way to inform people of the sacrifices so many make to keep us safe in the U.S.,” she said.
Participants at last year’s race got to know the foundation better, as well as engage in other activities outside the race. The opening ceremony included the Sea Cadets, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, Jefferson City Mayor Carrie Tergin and a mother who spoke about first responders’ action to help her son during an accident. Markers of the 343 New York City firefighters who died on 9/11 were displayed, and attendees found special painted rocks placed along the race route from JC Rocks.
This year many of the same activities will return, with registration at 7 a.m. and the event beginning at 9 a.m. Van Pool said Tergin, a color guard, Jefferson City Firefighters Pipes and Drums, Sea Cadets and singer Kacey Clay will be present for the opening ceremony, with Blunt and Gov. Eric Greiten’s offices contacted for participation. The route will start at the Capitol’s south steps and follow a path downtown ending back at the Capitol.
The fastest team of three or more registered firefighters running in full turnout gear will earn the Fastest Firehouse Traveling award. Last year, a Jefferson City Fire Department three-man team of Sean Henning, Joel Swader and Chief Matt Schofield (who also helped at ground zero after 9/11). Van Pool said the award for the fire department with the most registered participants, earned by South Callaway Fire Protection District in 2016, will be a traveling award this year. Each winner also receives a plaque.
Expecting at least 250 participants this year, Van Pool is encouraged the Tunnel To Towers Foundation 5K Run/Walk will continue to grow in participation and serve as a reminder of those who bravely risked and lost their lives on 9/11.
“I cannot imagine the bravery each of the first responders had that day, driving and running to the towers, I pause to wonder, what were they thinking, did they have any thoughts they might make the ultimate sacrifice that day?” she said. “I just don’t know, but it has been enough for me to jump in head first to make sure their stories and sacrifices stay alive for the next generation and those to come.”
Registration remains open through Sept. 16, but will increase to $25 for adults, $15 for children ages 13-17 and $10 for children 12 and younger on race day. All registrants receive a T-shirt and the first 250 registered participants that finish the 5K receive a medal.
For more information or to register, visit T2TRun.org, and for more information about the foundation, visit TunnelToTowers.org. Click here to read about three female first responders from Mid-Missouri who participated in last year’s event and plan to join in the second annual Tunnel To Towers 5K in Jefferson City.