In the early morning hours on Sunday, Sept. 29, a group of about 80 people gathered outside of the Piccola Bussola restaurant in Mineola for a single purpose. Many of them were runners, others just wanting to be there to contribute to a cause. Nearby, two busses waited to take them into Brooklyn for the “Tunnel to Towers” run, which was being held for the 12th time to retrace the steps of Steven Siller, a New York City firefighter who put pack on his back and ran 3.5 miles from Brooklyn through the Battery Tunnel to the World Trade Center on 9/11, becoming one of the 343 firefighters killed on that Tuesday morning.
“Unfortunately he was a great athlete; he got there too soon and he got there just as the tower was falling and he died that day,” Piccola Bussola owner Tony Lubrano said during a meeting of the Mineola Village Board on Oct. 2 at the village hall.
The run is operated by a foundation that uses the event to raise money for first responder groups and other charitable work. Held every year since 9/11, in the run’s first year they had 800 people participate, growing to over 30,000 this year.
“When you come out on the New York City side of the tunnel, they have 343 New York City firefighters in full dress uniforms standing at attention, each one carrying a banner with a photo of one of their friends who died that day and you run alongside of them,” Lubrano said. “It is such an emotional kind of thing, just a real tribute to all those men and women.”
The Mineola group had been treated to breakfast beforehand do to donated coffee, bagels and fruit from some people, and even had their own t-shirts printed. However, they were also given a generous sendoff by those in both the Mineola and New Hyde Park Fire Departments, placing a fire engine on either side of Jericho Turnpike and hanging a large American flag down between the two extended ladders so that the busses could drive beneath the stars and stripes. One of the runners had a friend in the New Hyde Park Fire Department, which is how the neighboring village also became involved. Mineola Chief Jeff Clark as well as chief Joseph Pratt and village trustee Paul Cusato were also in attendance at the send-off.
“I had a lot of people who were not from Mineola who participated in our group and they were like shocked, like ‘how did you get this to happen?’ and ‘I never saw anything like this for our small group of 80’,” Lubrano said. “I just told them this is what they do in Mineola. These guys got up on their own time on a Sunday morning, probably had to get up at four, six or probably closer to 5:30 a.m. to get out there and do this just because they thought it was the right thing to do.”
That was not the end of the well-wishes as the busses dropped off the runners in Brooklyn and picked them back up in Manhattan after the race, with Harry Zapiti being the actual overalllast person across the finish line.
Before the group departed the fire personnel asked if the group wanted to take a picture and closed the road for a group pose.
“They asked me what time am I coming back and I told them we’d be back around 1:30. At 1:30 someone from the fire department showed up with this picture framed and matted and suggested that since everybody was still there for an after party get every who participated to sign it,” Lubrano said.
Despite the short notice given to the runners, Lubrano was encouraged by his first year participating in the event, wanting to do it again in 2014 and inviting other Nassau County fire departments to participate so as to “send a Nassau County contingent of several hundred.”