Retired NYC firefighter speaks at ARHS Memorial Day Assembly

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Retired New York City Fire Battalion Chief John Martorana dressed Algonquin students last week. (Photo/Stuart Foster)

NORTHBOROUGH – Students at Algonquin Regional High School received a unique look at history last week when retired New York City Fire Battalion Chief John Martorana spoke at the school’s Memorial Day Assembly.

Martorana, who was an active duty firefighter during the 9/11 attacks, highlighted the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation in his comments on May 17. 

The Siller Foundation, which was founded by firefighter Stephen Siller’s siblings after his death on Sept. 11, 2001, engages in a number of efforts to support veterans, to tell the story of 9/11 heroes and much more.

“They stand behind our military,” Martorana said. “They stand behind our first responders.”

“[For] any of the military or first responders that have been impacted by catastrophic injuries or death, the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation is there to help out,” he continued.

Family launches Tunnel to Towers Foundation

After Siller’s death, his brothers and sisters wanted to keep his memory alive by hosting a fun run in 2002, retracing the steps he took a year earlier from the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel to Ground Zero. 

Roughly 2,000 people attended that first event 2002, where organizers raised money and donated it to an orphanage in Staten Island. They then continued to raise money in the now annual run for other causes. 

At the most recent run in 2019, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were more than 30,000 people, Martorana said. 

“It grabs all of Lower Manhattan, shuts it down for the day and becomes a massive block party with thousands and thousands of participants,” Martorana said. 

Martorana described other charitable actions of the foundation, like delivering more than 100 smart homes to veterans and paying off the mortgages of veterans and first responders who are killed in the line of duty.

The foundation also started doing disaster relief after Hurricane Sandy, further expanding its disaster relief to now take a nationwide scope.

Firefighter recalls 9/11 

Though he was on active duty, Martorana was initially not working on Sept. 11, 2001. All six firefighters who reported to work in his company on that day were killed. 

“I got there maybe an hour or so after the towers were down, so I wound up spending the day there looking for people,” Martorana said. “Probably about 11 or 12 o’clock at night, I had to go back to my firehouse in Brooklyn and start talking to families.”

Teacher seeks firsthand account of history

Gina Johnston, a social studies teacher at Algonquin who organized this assembly, noted that her students were born in 2004 or later. That means they were not alive during the 9/11 attacks.

“So, when we teach it as history teachers, to them, it’s literally textbook history,” Johnston said. “So, I try to get them as many firsthand accounts of history [as possible].”

Martorana, who was a firefighter for 39 years, drove up from Brooklyn to talk to the students in Northborough after he volunteered to be a national representative for the Tunnels to Towers Foundation.

He said it was his first time giving a speech like this in front of students, adding that it was nerve wracking for him.

“I would much rather be in firefighting gear in a burning building than doing this,” he said. 

Learn more about Stephen Siller and the Tunnel to Towers Foundation at https://t2t.org. 

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