NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — Sunday marked the 18th annual Tunnel To Towers 5K run and walk. Thousands followed in the footsteps of a hero.

They were retracing the steps of FDNY firefighter Stephen Siller, who was on his way home on Sept. 11, 2001, when he got word of a plane hitting one of the World Trade Center towers. He turned back around, strapped on 75 pounds of gear and ran through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel to help save lives.

He died that day, but 18 years later, his memory lives on.

For many participants, it’s a tribute and an inspiration.

Firefighter Stephen Siller (credit: CBS 2)

“This is for my 343 and counting brothers and sisters that never made it home. We’re running strong,” one person said.

“We will never ever forget you. We love you and God bless you,” another person said.

And for others, it’s an inspiration.

“It’s really amazing because it really does remember that day and all of the heroes of that day and all those who have lost their lives and have sacrificed for this country,” said Tiffany Vendela, who was making her second run.

“Coming out of the tunnel and seeing all of those banners of the firefighters was heartbreaking, yet it gives you a sense of pride to know that these guys were selfless,” added Donna Conti of Lindenhurst.

Some said they come year after year, but for others, Sunday marked their first Tunnel to Towers run.

“I’ve been learning all about the twin towers and I just wanted to come to volunteer and help all the people who has fight for our country,” 7-year-old Selima Ortiz said.

“I was here in New York City on 9/11 when this happened. I’ll never forget it. I’m eternally grateful to all the first responders and the way everybody came together in this city,” said Steve Curtis, who lives in Texas. “This is one of the best events in New York. Just to be able to support all the first responders, all of the victims’ families, this is a fantastic event. We’re here every year.”

New this year, the event saluted all the members of the military who have died since 9/11.

Hundreds of ROTC cadets lined parts of the route, and as CBS2’s John Elliott reported they were standing shoulder to shoulder with banners with almost 7,000 pictures and names of all of the fallen.

Many said Siller would be proud of an event that’s turned a family’s grief into a way to help others and help ensure we will never for forget.

The Stephen Siller Tunnel To Towers Foundation helps build mortgage-free smart homes for injured military veterans and the families of first responders who lost their lives in the line of duty.

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