The stillness seemed so loud.
It was a little after midnight on Sept. 11 when I started walking around the track at Powhatan High School. This isn’t a regular happening – I had come there to see the start of the run Russ Holland Jr. was doing in honor of the 343 firefighters who lost their lives on Sept. 11, 2001. With only two weeks notice and despite not properly training for the exercise, Russ had decided to run 343 laps around the track, or just over 85 miles, to honor them and raise funds for Powhatan Fire and Rescue.
I had smiled when I talked to him the day before the run and heard how he came up with the idea and just as quickly talked himself out of it. Were it not for an unexpected sighting of an ad for the department – something he took as a sign he should think again – who knows if this run would have come into being.
I waffled on whether to go to the midnight start of the run, believing any photos I took would not turn out and that I should really be in bed, despite my night owl tendencies. But I went anyway to honor the fallen, who even after 18 years are more than just names on a memorial or a plaque somewhere.
I was pleasantly surprised how many people were there at that early hour, including several firefighters walking or running in full turnout gear. You could hear the rasp of their Darth Vader-like breathing from across the field and knew, even with the pleasant breeze, it had to be stifling in those suits.
In deference to neighbors, the overhead lights at the track weren’t turned on. Instead, a generator-powered spotlight gave just enough light so that you didn’t feel like you were walking in total darkness at the far end of the track.
First I shot a live video for the Powhatan Today’s Facebook page. Then I took a few minutes to soak it all in and observe. Several people were walking around the track, either alone or in pairs or groups.
A volunteer station was set up on one end, complete with a box filled with photos of the 343 firefighters and an inflatable screen where the names and photo of each man was projected for the duration of that lap.
The first few laps I walked with a friend who also had come out to support the run. But she had to leave – something about sleeping and getting up to take care of her family – so I kept walking by myself.
At that time of night, there wasn’t any music, so I had the chance to simply be quiet and soak in the surroundings. Except for the occasional work truck trundling by on Anderson Highway and the rumble of the generator powering the spotlights, the only sounds were the insects in the woods near the scoreboard and the steady pop of foot falls on the track – mine or someone else’s as they passed me.
As I was walking and he was jogging, Russ and those with him (including Carrie Edwards, a Powhatan woman who helped him keep pace for the first five hours) passed me a few times. He was wearing a back light that switched colors from red to white to blue and stood out against the darkness.
There was a special moment in each lap right after I passed the harsh light of the spotlights and was once more merging with the darkness. Each time, I found myself looking up at stars in the beautiful, clear night sky and being thankful to be alive and have the blessings I do in my life.
And as I made it around the loop and neared the volunteer station, there were the posters with the names of the fallen firefighters – Gregg Atlas, Michael Roberts, Matthew Barnes, Frank Bonomo, Francis Esposito, Steven Coakley, Denis Germain, Jeffrey Giordano, John Tipping II, Paul Keating … the list goes on. And those names merge into a larger list with 2,977 names on it, all victims of an unspeakable tragedy that rocked our nation.
When your world changes, there is no going back. But 18 years later, we still remember.
Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.