Mich. Firefighters Run 5K in Full Gear for Fallen 9/11 Responders
May 19—He thinks of it as bigger than one man finishing a 5k. He is representing thousands of first responders.
He is competing for the 343 firefighters who died on Sept. 11, 2001, and it has given Bob Bates a new reason to run.
"I can't put it into words how big this is," said Bates, a 45-year-old volunteer firefighter in Camden, southwest of Hillsdale.
Bates was the first wearing firefighting gear to finish on Saturday the second Tunnel to Towers 5k at Cascade Falls Park, which raised more than $30,000 to aid catastrophically injured veterans. He completed the course in 22:52, good for eight overall and second in his age group.
The event is one of 60 or more organized across the country in memory of Stephen Siller, an off-duty New York firefighter who, unable to drive, ran about 3.5 miles with 50 pounds of gear toward the World Trade Center, where he died. Siller's siblings established a foundation that builds "smart homes" for injured service members and pays mortgages for families of fallen first responders.
Jan Ganzel, a Blackman-Leoni Township public safety sergeant and New York native, brought the race to Jackson in 2017.
Bates first ran a Tunnel to Tower 5k in Berkley, near Royal Oak, in September. He won among firefighters there too, taking home a golden helmet.
Already talking about the track workouts he plans to do in firefighting pants to better his performance, Bates learned Saturday the foundation is flying him to New York for the original race, retracing Siller's steps.
He has been running for more than three decades. He competed for Calvin College in Grand Rapids and then Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti. He used to run with his 7-year-old son, Zach, born with disabilities.
Zach died in 2009 and it took the Tunnel to Towers event to restore Bates' love for the sport.
"This is a whole new life to running, a whole new chapter," he said, still sweaty from a race he said was "hot, extremely hot." He had pulled off his jacket to reveal a florescent tank top with Zach's picture on its front. His sons Cole, 11, and Peyton, 10, stood at his side.
Around his neck was a lanyard attached to Siller's picture. This too motivated him, said Bates, featured in a marketing video placed prominently on the foundation's Facebook page. It shows him running in his fire suit and helmet through the fields of southern Hillsdale County.
Behind him Saturday, a giant American flag was suspended by two ladder trucks, and in the grass along the finish line were pictures of other firefighters who died in the terrorist attacks.
Charles Gussman knew some of them. The retired New York fire commander and foundation volunteer lost 20 firefighters from his battalion that day. He came to Jackson in 2015 to present a shadowbox containing steel from the World Trade Center, introduced Ganzel to the Siller organization and returned on Saturday.
He and his wife were vacationing in Bermuda in the North Atlantic Ocean the day the planes hit the towers. Watching TV news like others around the world, he could not get a flight home for several days. There was nothing he could do.
Gussman then spent four months among the wreckage. "We never saw a desk. We never saw a door. We never saw a computer... It was utter and total devastation."
For more than 1,100 of the casualties, there are no remains. It is as if they disappeared, he said.
"Those of us that were there, we have a new appreciation for what it is like when you leave your door, when you leave your home and you go to work... whatever your station in life, you never know when your loved one is going to return," he said.
"Appreciate what you have, thank those that serve your community... don't go away mad."
Gussman was speaking to the crowd before the start of the race.
Girl Scouts joined him, reading the names of police officers and firefighters who have died in or were from Jackson County.
Summit Township and Spring Arbor Fire Chief Tim McEldowney, in formal uniform, reminded those gathered that there are more than 400 firefighters, about 200 sworn police officers and more than 100 emergency medical service providers in Jackson County.
"These are people that care about their community. They have a servant's heart," he said.
"I am so proud to see how many are here."
There were about 420 registered runners, up from about 300 in 2017. Among them were many firefighters. Toni Flaugher was completing her first 5k—in her fire gear. The volunteer Hillsdale firefighter, 28, said watching the towers collapse as a fifth grader moved her to fight fires.
McEldowney hopes to see that number of participants grow. "Because we made a pledge on Sept. 11, 2001: We will never forget."