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Community gears up for Tunnel to Towers run

by Joe Gamm | September 17, 2023 at 4:00 a.m.
Josh Cobb/News Tribune Members of the Naval Sea Cadet Corps begin the Tunnels to Towers 5K on Saturday morning at the Capitol building.

About a dozen firefighters stood early Saturday morning in the parking lot on the south side of Missouri's Capitol.

Each climbed into protective gear.

They didn't hurry.

There was no fire, or other emergency causing need for a rush.

The first responders were preparing to participate in the eighth annual Jefferson City Tunnel to Towers 5K Fun Run.

The event is held annually across the nation honor the life and death of Stephen Siller, a Fire Department of New York (FDNY) firefighter who died on 9/11.

On that fateful morning, Siller had gotten off the late shift and was to meet his brothers to play a round of golf. But he heard what was happening at the World Trade Center -- planes had struck the towers -- and returned to his squad to gather his fire gear.

He drove to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, which was closed, so he strapped on his 60-plus pounds of gear and ran through traffic to the Twin Towers, where he died saving others.

The Stephen Stiller Tunnel to Towers Foundation was created to honor his legacy, according to Roxy VanPool, organizer of the local event. It supports several programs, she said -- a smart-home program for catastrophically injured veterans; a Gold Star Families program for families of U.S. soldiers killed in action who leave behind small children; a fallen first responders program, for families of first responders killed in the line of duty; and a homeless veterans initiative, which started this year.

The Gold Star Families program will pay off mortgages for families of fallen solders. The fallen first responders program does the same for families of first responders, VanPool said.

Through its Homeless Veteran Program, the foundation strives to end homelessness among veterans, VanPool said.

"We are building small homes and apartments around the country -- mostly in the southern states," she said. "We've built 500 homes so far. We're hoping to build another 1,500 in the next year or two to help address homelessness in veterans."

A couple hundred people had expressed interest in supporting the programs, VanPool added.

She said about 180 people had pre-registered for Saturday morning's run as she looked up into a light drizzle that fell as participants in the 5K arrived.

Despite the rain, several day-of runners signed up for the event.

Five-year-old Annabel Restrepo and her family arrived early at the Capitol to participate in the event. Annabel wore a tiny "turnout gear" coat and plastic fire helmet.

"I'm fast when this is not on me," Annabel said, and pulled off the helmet. Her parents explained she was preparing to run in her fourth 5K.

Chase Nieberding, a freshman, and Cannon Morris, a sophomore, both Sea Cadets at School of the Osage, said they looked forward to running in the 5K. They would be competitive during the run, they said, but they had to run in formation. As the physical training coordinator for the unit, Morris said he gets everyone to do the training, so he should be good.

"I love running miles," Morris said. "We can't (compete), sadly. We're all going to stick together."

Jefferson City Fire Chief Matt Schofield said he tries to participate in the 5K each year.

"If I'm here, I'm doing it," he said. And he explained, "Sometimes, I'm deployed or doing different things."

Jefferson City firefighters' gear weighs about 60 pounds, Schofield said.

"It's definitely a lot of weight on your shoulders and hips. And just the restriction of the insulated suit," he said. "Just the weight and heat and restriction of movement."

The helmet adds a lot of weight to the gear.

Local fire departments compete against each other for the fastest team. They each enter four firefighters in the 5K. The first team whose four firefighters complete the event is the local winner, according to firefighter Clint Kempker, who is the team leader for the race team.

He added it is a friendly competition. He puts the team together each year. One goal, he said, is to get new firefighters involved.

"I've got an Army National Guard member. It's his second year," Kempker said. "I've got a driver running it. It'll be his first year, so he's been practicing."

Kempker explained that practicing involves wearing a weighted vest and running a couple times each week.

  photo  Josh Cobb/News Tribune Jefferson City residents stand Saturday morning at the Missouri Capitol for the playing of the national anthem before the Tunnels to Towers 5K.
  photo  Josh Cobb/News Tribune Members of the Naval Sea Cadet Corps salute the flag Saturday morning as members of the Cole County Honor Guard carry the flags in preparation for the playing of the National Anthem before the Tunnels to Towers 5K.
  photo  Josh Cobb/News Tribune Annabel Gonzales sits in one of the Jefferson City Fire Departments fire trucks while learning about fire trucks from Jefferson City Fire Department Driver Lisa Layton-Brinker on Saturday morning before the Tunnels to Towers 5K.
  photo  Josh Cobb/News Tribune Cohen Chastain sits in one of the Jefferson City Fire Departments Fire Trucks before Saturday morning's Tunnels to Towers 5K.
  photo  Josh Cobb/News Tribune. Jefferson City residents begin the Tunnels to Towers 5K at the Capitol building on Saturday morning. The Tunnels to Towers 5K was created to honor the heroic life and death of New York Firefighter Stephen Siller who lost his life after strapping on his gear and running through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and into the twin towers.

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