Janet Lewis was working for a New York City-based company the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 but, as fortune would have it, happened to be at a branch office in suburban Westchester County when the first jetliner hit the World Trade Center South Tower that fateful day.
Like all Americans, the Langhorne native was in a near state of shock as one building exploded in flames and then another.
Scenes of the horrific tragedy left memories that will never be forgotten.
For Lewis, destiny was somewhat kind, too, for someone close in her personal life. The husband of one of her best friends was scheduled to attend a meeting in one of the towers that morning but was running late and avoided what could have been certain death had he stepped onto one of the elevators.
Now, 21 years later, Lewis is still deeply involved in efforts to help the movement of recognizing and assisting first responders, et al, who made the ultimate sacrifice that day in lower Manhattan as well as their brethren all around the country in current times.
As we mentioned in a column back in August, she’s running a segment of 668 stages (traversing 17 states and Washington, D.C.) of the Great American Relay. The 3,346-mile trek began on Sept. 10 at Santa Monica, Calif., and is scheduled to end on Sunday, Oct. 16 at the World Trade Center.
It’s a way of contributing to a movement that began almost the moment events unfolded that crystal-clear day back in 2001.
“I could see the smoke from my office,’’ Lewis recalled in a telephone interview. “My friend and her husband had just come back from their honeymoon that weekend. He was scheduled for that meeting and, in that moment, we had no idea what happened to him.
“So 9/11 has been very important to me on a personal level. Not just from understanding the meanings of the country. One of my classmates from my MBA program was on one of the planes. I listen to the names being read every year. I just feel that’s important.’’
Lewis will be running her third GAR. Most segments (490 to be exact) will start and end at local firehouses.
“Each stage has one lead runner who carries the baton along with up to 10 support runners,’’ Lewis explained. “Most start at a firehouse to show our support for our local firefighters. Runners can pick one or more stages to run. The GAR makes stops at Shanksville (Pa.), the Pentagon Memorial, the Oklahoma City Memorial and many other historic locations.’’
Charity partners include the Green Beret Foundation, the Concerns of Police Survivors, and the Firefighter Five Foundation.
Lewis will begin her two stages at the Pioneer Fire Company on Saturday, Oct. 15 and finish that segment at Abington Fire Company. The second stage goes from Abington Fire Company to the Upper Moreland firehouse.
“Over the last two years, it has become a meaningful tradition that we reach out to the firehouses to not only let them know we will be there, but to thank them in advance for what they do each day,’’ Lewis said. “Many firehouses also provide escorts for our runners.’’
From the moment she got involved, Lewis knew this was something she was committed to for years to come.
“It’s not only 9/11 but it is what our first responders do, day in and day out,’’ she said. “And this is how we can honor them. Whether it’s thinking about the events of 9/11, or next year’s 10th anniversary of the Boston (Marathon) bombing and what first responders did there.
“So it’s going to be a lot of emotion for me. It’s also a lot of fun to meet the people from the community who help us if we ever need them. I always tell them with a laugh I hope I never see them again. It’s a chance for me to personally thank them. I feel like they only get thanks when it’s something big. This is a chance to do it at another time.’’
Janet’s son, 9-year-old Mason, will run one of the stages with his mom.
Other support runners can join in this memorable experience.
If you’re interested in taking part as a support runner, visit GARJLewis@outlook.com.
“We’re looking for support runners,’’ Lewis, 50, said. “And even people to come out and cheer us along our routes. This year, all lead runners are also receiving an American flag to carry along our runs.’’
Back in 2001, Lewis did all she could to help with those who survived perhaps the worst day in American history.
“I ended up volunteering at the (NYC) Family Assistance Center,’’ said Lewis, a former Hall of Fame runner at Neshaminy High School and later a standout at Duke University. “Trying to help families who were looking for their missing loved ones.
“When I was working there, I was just trying to answer these calls. You don’t have answers. You’re just there to let them talk. I was never going to be able to help them find their family member. It was heartbreaking.’’