Sept. 11 heroes not forgotten in South Mississippi

Hurricanes to the east and west of South Mississippi remind people that when tragedy strikes, first responders come to the rescue as they did when planes crashed into the Twin Towers in New York City on on Sept. 11, 2001.

On Saturday, , Coast residents will give back as they make the 3rd annual Tunnel to the Towers 5k Run and Walk from Ocean Springs, across the Biloxi Bay Bridge to Margaritaville Resort Biloxi. This year participants also have the option to feel the burn, making the stair climb at Margaritaville five times or the equivalent of 110 floors. That’s sybolic of the 110 floors in each Twin Towers, said Biloxi firefighter Justin Lopez.

The fundraiser pays homage to first responders like Stephen Siller, a New York City firefighter who was off duty when the first call came in on 9/11. He strapped on 60 pounds of gear and ran through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel to the Twin Towers. The father of five lost his life that day like hundreds of other New York firefighters.

Justin and Bridget Lopez began their participation by joining the Tunnel to the Towers race in New York, which is bigger than the New York Marathon and draws more than 40,000 runners. Three years ago, they organized an event in South Mississippi and Margaritaville Biloxi has hosted it for the past two years since the resort opened.

There is no holiday set aside to honor first responders, said Cono Caranna with Margaritaville Biloxi. “It’s a great day for us to focus on them.”

The run begins at 6 p.m. at Fort Maurepas on Front Beach in Ocean Springs and will end at Margaritaville Biloxi. Shuttle buses will run from 4-5:30 p.m. to take runners from the parking areas on the west side of Margaritaville to the start of the race.

Registration for runners age 11 and older is $25 in advance or $35 on race day. For those who want to run and do the stair climb, the rate is $35 in advance or $45 on race day. Children under age 10 can join for free but must be registered and accompanied by an adult.

The event continues with an after party at the Margaritaville pool deck complete with a big screen TV to watch the Lousiana State-Mississippi State football game, along with food and beverages, music, the awards ceremony and a fireworks salute to the heroes. It’s a family party and the cost is $5 for non-runners includes admission to the pool.

All the money raised goes to the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, which initially helped the families of those firefighters who died on 9/11. Its premier mission 16 years later is Building for America’s Bravest program, which provides smart homes to U.S. military injured while serving their country. The organization just surpassed 25 percent to its goal of building 200 of the smart homes that average about $500,000 each, said Bridget Lopez. On Monday the foundation presented an Army veteran in Syracuse, New York, with keys to his mortgage-free home.

Justin Lopez recalled how the New York firefighters helped with the relief work in South Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina and how for several years arrived with Santa and trucks full of toys for Coast children.

“They’re setting up for Harvey and Irma now,” he said of the victims of this year’s hurricanes.