“They can’t find Uncle Tom.”
Those are the words my mother said when she met me on the porch of our Staten Island home on Sept. 11, 2001. My aunt’s brother, Tom Celic, had gone to Tower 1 of the World Trade Center for a meeting instead of his midtown office. He took the ferry into Manhattan with his wife, said goodbye as she made her way toward her office, and that was the last anyone saw of him.
For those who don’t remember, or weren’t there, families like mine spent weeks searching for loved ones. They checked hospitals and put pictures up all over lower Manhattan hoping that someone had seen their lost family member. No one saw Tom. He was 43 years old. And he was gone.
I have a lot of memories of Uncle Tom. Memories from Christmas brunches over the years, and of him dancing with his wife at one of the annual Jersey Shore parties and of running local races wearing an old tank top and red durag.
Uncle Tom was an avid runner. He ran seven New York City Marathons, two Boston marathons and was an active member of the Staten Island Athletic Club. When his older brother Marty passed away in 1977 while fighting a fire in Manhattan, Uncle Tom coordinated a run in his big brother’s honor to raise scholarship money for students attending his old high school. Ironically, this run, the Celic Run, was held every September for 26 years. Uncle Tom was a running mentor to my older brother Tug and younger brother Thomas, both of whom had successful running careers through high school.
I, on the other hand, hated running. It felt like a form of punishment. I did not run unless someone was chasing me. I played sports, but I was usually the slowest one on the court, the last one to the line. I would hear runners use words like “joyful,” and I thought they were nuts.
But that September, when the world stopped, I knew I would run. I knew the next Celic Run would honor Uncle Tom, too, and I knew I had to finish it. A 4-mile run around Clove Lakes Park, up some hills, through some woods and cross the line. I had less than a year to prepare for it and once I did it, I’d never have to do it again. One time, the first year, and then I was done.
I started running in fall 2001. I would run 5 minutes, then 10, then 15 and so on. I never looked at a watch or mapped out a run. I would just run around the neighborhood — after all, I wasn’t “training.” I was just running so I could finish one race one time.
I ran the 4-mile Celic Run in September 2002. It was emotional and wonderful and sad and hard and, yes, it was joyful. I ran with families from my community who were still grieving the loss of loved ones. I ran with firefighters and police officers who gave so much on 9/11 and the days after. I ran with Uncle Tom’s coworkers who had made the trek to Staten Island from Manhattan.
I ran 4 miles that day, and I never stopped.
I have since run five marathons, a handful of triathlons and countless 5ks. I wake up every weekday at 5 a.m. and run before I take my kids to school and head to work at Florida Gulf Coast University. My brother Tug, who was already a runner, went back to running to complete the NYC Marathon in 2002 as well. In his finish-line photo, he’s holding a picture of Uncle Tom in one hand and a red durag in the other.
So many people’s lives were changed 21 years ago on Sept. 11. So much was lost. That was the day I found running. That was the day that changed my life, and I am humbled that people think it’s a story worth telling.
– Tracy Incardone is a writer in University Marketing & Communications; her husband is a retired New York City police officer.