Nearly 2,400 U.S. Military Academy cadets, staff, faculty and U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School personnel volunteered their time to participate in the annual Tunnel 2 Towers 5K Run and Walk, Sept. 24 in New York City.
The event memorializes NYC firefighter Stephen Siller who was off duty when the planes hit the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Instead of going golfing with his brothers, Siller returned to his squad to grab his gear. He drove his truck to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, but it was already closed.
Siller still didn't turn back.
He strapped 60 pounds of gear to his back and rushed on foot through gridlocked traffic and ran from the Tunnel to the Towers where he gave his life while saving others.
"Sunday's event is a tremendous developmental opportunity for the young men and women who make up the Corps," Brig. Gen. Steve Gilland, commandant of cadets said leading up to the event. "The selfless service of Stephen Siller and the other brave men and women who sacrificed so much on Sept. 11 is a source of inspiration for us all. We are proud to run with the participants from New York City and around the country to honor his memory this weekend."
Cadet Henry Guerra, the Cadet in Charge for T2T, says that Siller set an example that his peers should follow.
"All cadets should strive to have as much courage and as much purpose as Mr. Siller demonstrated that day," Guerra said.
The Corps of Cadets has been participating in the event as an organized group since 2009, reaching record-high number of sign ups this year.
"The Corps has always strongly supported the T2T run, as evidenced by us having to close sign-ups early due to an overwhelming number of cadets who wanted to participate," Guerra explained. "I chose to be so deeply involved with this event because of the impact 9/11 had on my childhood and my decision to join the military."
This is Guerra's fourth time participating.
"It's an incredible feeling to run through the tunnel, especially when you exit, your eyes adjust and you are surrounded by American flags on all sides," he said. "It's a hard feeling to describe but I always get a sense of pride and adrenaline once we exit the tunnel and the Freedom Tower begins to manifest in the distance."
For Cadet Christopher Tanega, that sense pride and patriotism following 9/11 also inspired him to serve.
On the morning of 9/11, Tanega's father had walked through the North Tower before going to work on Wall Street.
"When the second plane hit, he could hear it coming overhead and he says it sounded like a train coming through and the entire building was shaking," Tanega said, retelling his father's story. "A few minutes later, they were all evacuated, when he came outside he mentioned there were white papers everywhere."
Luckily, after a six-hour walk home to Queens, Tanega's father made it home safely.
"What I really remember from that day was what happened afterwards. You couldn't go anywhere without seeing an American flag," Tanega explained. "All the American flags were sold out at Home Depot, they were all over the street. That kind of imagery, knowing the people around us were really affected, it meant a lot to me and that's part of why I joined the Army."
Capt. Joshua Wolf, Officer in Charge for T2T and D-1 TAC officer, agrees.
"For those of us who joined the Army after 9/11, this event refreshes us, this is why I signed up," he said. "It's something that is good for us to remember why we're still fighting and to pay our respects for those who sacrificed so much."
Wolf ran T2T for the first time last year with a classmate, Ronald Bucca. Bucca's father, also Ronald Bucca, was a firefighter who, along with firefighter Orio Palmer, went higher in the towers than any other firefighters, to save lives. Both Bucca and Palmer passed as the towers collapsed.
"It was a privilege that I was selected for this event," he said, noting that the Corps participation inspires him. "This is a completely voluntary event and over half the Corps gave their weekend in supporting this event."
That large group of cadets includes Wolf's D-1 company commander, Cadet Alexandra Caudullo, who is equally moved by the event.
"We are actually following in someone's footsteps, and doing the race and imagining doing that race with New York City traffic and fumes under that tunnel," she started. "And running with gear on your back, could you even imagine that?"
Caudullo lost an uncle, who was also a New York City firefighter, on 9/11.
"It was a Tuesday, he worked Monday and was just finishing a 24-hour shift and he was going back home," she began. "He had just called his wife and he was really excited to go home because it was his birthday."
When the towers hit, Caudullo's uncle, Vinny, turned back.
"The last radio call they heard from him is he got out, but he got a call that there was a woman on the fifth floor in a wheel chair, so he went back to get her," she explained. "That's when the tower fell."
For Caudullo, the memory of her uncle is at the 9/11 memorial pools, she says. Having her company participate in the T2T gave her a chance to tell her uncle's story, and to have her peers take a step back from their everyday busy lives and remember why they chose to serve.
"Having that opportunity to refocus on what's important in life is what's crucial, because it's easy to lose sight of that," she said. "This is important, it's part of who we are."