Posted by ernie beach on September 07, 2005 at 17:54:24:
The race they run for absent friends
The Celic Run on Sept. 10 at Clove Lakes Park is more about the people than the competition
Thursday, September 01, 2005
The Firemen's Memorial Garden sits between drab four-story walk-ups on Manhattan's Lower East Side, across the street from a parking garage. Tended by volunteers, flowers sprout along a circular brick walkway, symbols of hope in a neighborhood straining to outgrow its gritty past. Toward the back of the property, under the trees, a heavy wooden sign identifies the space as Firefighter Marty Celic Park.
Even padlocked, on a gray day soupy with humidity, the green space is an oasis of tranquility; so different from the chaos of that day in the summer of 1977, when all the poorest neighborhoods in the city seemed to be in flames, and Celic was five flights up, fighting a tenement fire at the same address.
Five firefighters went into the burning building, before an arsonist set a second fire below them, sending the firemen scrambling out a window and off the fire escape, jumping for the safety of a hastily-raised rescue platform, and for their lives.
Four of them made it.
Celic, who was far and away the best athlete of the bunch -- a record-holder in the intermediate hurdles at Monsignor Farrell High School -- didn't.
Maybe he was tired, at the end of an overtime shift; or maybe he slipped. Or maybe the building or the platform shuddered at the critical moment, throwing him off balance.
Weighed down by 30 pounds of equipment and the air tank on his back, Celic fell 70 feet to the pavement below, and landed at the feet of his chief. He died eight days later at Bellevue, leaving a grieving family and a fiancee who'd just finished picking out furniture.
He was 25, the kind of kid who brought the party with him.
There was never a shortage of heroes in this neighborhood, even then. Just not as many dead ones as there are now, 28 years after Marty Celic ran into the burning tenement on East 8th Street, and four years after so many of his brothers -- and his brother -- perished in the World Trade Center, the day the hijackers drove the planes into the buildings.
"A lot of people who aren't around anymore," Ernie Beach is saying 10 days before this year's Celic Run on Sept. 10 at Clove Lakes Park, the spiritual home of cross country and road racing on Staten Island.
Since 2001, the Celic Run has been run in memory of Marty, the older brother with the big personality -- after winning the hurdles in the CHSAA Sectionals, he dropped his shorts in a brief but memorable salute to appreciative teammates; and Tom, who got his first pair of running shoes from Marty and labored to keep his memory alive, right up until that true-blue September morning when he said goodbye to his wife at the Ferry, on his way to a breakfast meeting in Tower 1, and never came home again.
You ask Beach, part of the small group of volunteers who make it happen, how much of the race is about Marty and Tom, and he shrugs.
"For the people who come," he says, "it's the whole thing. There's a huge sense of family there."
And now they'll have to do it without Matt Celic, Marty and Tom's father, who died shortly before last year's race. This is the first time the run-up organizational meetings weren't held in the little red house on Nevada Avenue, the one where Matt and Inez raised five kids -- four boys wedged into one bedroom -- on huge doses of love.
"It stinks," Beach says, surprised to hear there's anybody on Staten Island who hasn't been the recipient of the Celics' hospitality. "There's a lot of heart in that house.
"A lot of history."
They never meant for the house to become a shrine, like the one on East 8th Street in Manhattan. It just happened that way.
Decades ago, somebody started the tradition of having guests sign the walls in the basement. Years went by, and after awhile there were hundreds of names, or thousands.
"It wasn't just runners or firemen," Beach says. "They had tentacles that reached everywhere.
"A lot of people's names who aren't around anymore."
That's part of what makes race day so bittersweet for people like Tim McCauley, a runner before he was a firefighter.
"As a New York City fireman who was running in high school when Marty died, I always felt I should go to the race," McCauley says. "And after you've been involved for awhile, it's like you're a part of the family.
"Now you look around and you think ... this guy's not here ... that guy's not here," McCauley says, gearing up for the best worst day on the running calendar.
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