RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Members of the Felician College women's basketball team have become used to spending the months of September and October participating in various community service events both in the College's hometown of Rutherford and elsewhere in the New York City metropolitan area. Such service has become a hallmark of head coach Steve Fagan's eight years at Felician.
So when the players were asked to volunteer to provide water and give directions at the 2015 Stephen Siller Tunnel To Towers 5K Run and Walk in New York on September 27, they viewed it as just another chance to serve their community and bond with their teammates. They knew little of how affected they would be by what they saw.
Siller was a New York City firefighter who had gotten off the late shift on the morning of September 11, 2001, when his scanner told him of the first airplane to hit the World Trade Center. He postponed his plans for the day, retrieved his gear, and drove his truck to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, which was already closed. He then made the decision to run, with 60 pounds of gear on his back, from the tunnel to the twin towers, where he was killed while attempting to save others.
The Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation now exists to honor Siller's sacrifice and to honor military and first responders nationwide. On the foundation website, Siller is described as having been been raised by parents who were lay Franciscans. With Felician's mission as a Franciscan college, and with his roster including players from all five boroughs of New York City, it was only natural for Fagan, a Staten Island native, to want his team involved in this event.
But because of its association with the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the walk is classified as an "enhanced security" event. Thus, plans for Felician's participation had to begin back in April. Every member of the Golden Falcons had to submit an application to volunteer, and had to show valid identification on the day of the walk. But for Fagan, all the logistical challenges were worth the effort.
"I lost a lot of friends on 9/11, and my wife and brother escaped the towers," Fagan said. "The Sillers are a big basketball family on Staten Island that I've known for years. We've tried to get involved in this event in the past, but always run into scheduling conflicts. This year, the emotion I saw in our players' eyes showed they understood what the Siller Foundation is all about."
The New York City 5K is set up for the participants to follow Siller's path on that fateful day. It begins in the Battery Tunnel, and the finish line is near the Freedom Tower. The symbolism was not lost on Felician sophomore guard Danelle Gibson (Bronx, N.Y./Cardinal Spellman), who spent most of the last nine months rehabilitating from a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered in the middle of her freshman campaign.
"What struck me the most is that the Wounded Warriors entered a team," Gibson said. "There was a woman from that team that ran the entire race on crutches. It helped me put my own life and injury in perspective. If she can do that, then I can do anything."
The vastness and diversity of the event was also not lost on Gibson.
"There were about 8,000 to 10,000 runners," she said. "There were people of all ages. There was this little seven-year-old, running by herself, and she came in second place in her division!"
The Golden Falcons already have plans to do their usual line-up of activities in October, most notably serving as chaperones and costume judges at the annual Rutherford Ragamuffin Parade. Experiencing the Tunnel to Towers run should make getting up for those events a little bit easier.
"Our coaches make a great effort to get us involved in our community," Gibson said. "We're part of a small community in a small town, and it's important that we put our faces out there."