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TJ's Tribute: Running to remember the victims of 9/11

Brent Ashcroft / WZZM-TV • Sep 13, 2017 at 12:00 AM

MIDDLEVILLE — Sixteen years ago, the world changed forever.

Commercial airplanes, used as bombs, were crashed intentionally into the World Trade Center in New York and into the Pentagon in Washington D.C., killing more than 3,000 innocent people.

A West Michigan resident was supposed to be inside Tower Two of the World Trade Center that fateful morning, and due to severe case of survivor's guilt, he's never been able to talk about his experience — until now.

"This has been incredibly hard for me," said T.J. Sapunarich, who was born and raised in New Jersey. "There hasn't been a day that I haven't thought about it, and when I do think about it, I'm overcome with uncontrollable waves of emotion."

In February 1999, while living in New Jersey, T.J. was hired by Aon Corporation, which had its main offices between the 98th and 105th floors of Tower Two of the World Trade Center in New York City.

"I was hired to help the Aon employees with their desktop support," said Sapunarich. "I operated out of the Aon satellite office in Lyndhurst, New Jersey, but traveled to the World Trade Center several times each week.

"The World Trade Center was such an amazing building and I enjoyed going there so much. The view from the Aon offices on the 101st floor was breathtaking.

"I have pictures of that view, which serve as important reminders for me.

A few days before the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, T.J. took a phone call from his boss at Aon.

"My boss asked two of us to come to the World Trade Center on that Tuesday morning at 8 a.m. for a meeting," said Sapunarich. "We were all set to go."

T.J.'s boss then called him the day before saying his flight from out of town was going to be delayed and the meeting had to be rescheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 12.

"Due to that change, we weren't there," said Sapunarich. "It was by happenstance, the grace of God, who knows.

"It just worked out that way."

At 9 a.m. that morning, T.J. was at the Aon satellite office in New Jersey when he first received word of the attacks.

"We watched the towers burn from our office windows in Lyndhurst," said Sapunarich. "The entire time, I knew I was supposed to be there."

When Tower Two collapsed at 9:59 a.m. that morning, 176 of the Aon employees — many of whom T.J. knew and worked closely with — lost their lives.

Ever since the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, T.J. Sapunarich has kept his WTC identification card with him wherever he goes, including during his annual 9/11 run to remember.

"It's just tough to deal with," said Sapunarich, trying to speak through tears. "For years, I have been angry about it and I still can't make sense over what happened that day."

In 2012, T.J. and his wife, Claire, relocated from New Jersey to West Michigan. For Claire, it was a homecoming, since she's a graduate of Grand Rapids Christian High School.

Claire is a mental health therapist, and has been helping her husband try to deal with his survivor's guilt, but the illness is still very present for T.J.

"When I try to talk about it, the emotions are overwhelming," said Sapunarich. "I start crying and shaking uncontrollably, and I can't get the words out."

T.J. rarely speaks about the unconscionable loss he experienced on that day, but what he's done almost every Sept. 11 since carries with it a profound message.

"In 2003, I decided I needed to do something for my fallen friends," said Sapunarich. "It's my own personal tribute to them."

Around 8 a.m., on every Sept. 11, the former United States Marine (served from 1985-1991) grabs an American flag on a pole and goes for a four mile run. He did it for nine straight years he lived in New Jersey, and since moving to Middleville in 2012, he's done it every year there, too.

During his annual run to remember on September 11th, T.J. wears a laminated sheet of paper on his back, honoring the 176 co-workers he lost when Tower Two collapsed that day.

"It's a respect thing for me," said Sapunarich. "I take it very seriously, and am proud to do it."

When T.J. does his run to remember every Sept. 11, many thoughts go through his head while he goes.

"I think about the names of the former co-workers that I do know from the 176 who died that day," said Sapunarich. "Fortunately, I remember exactly how many of those people looked, and that's comforting for me."

As T.J. runs, his survivor's guilt runs along with him.

"I'm not running from what happened," said Sapunarich. "I'm never going to pretend it didn't happen."

Most people who see T.J. running don't acknowledge, and just drive on by, however, some will say something or honk.

"When somebody goes by, and they give me a thumbs up, or they beep [their horn], to me, that's special," said Sapunarich, trying to hold back tears. "I'm just a lone runner with a flag and his thoughts.

"That's all it is."

T.J. Sapunarich is a former United States Marine. He served from 1985 to 1991. A few years ago, he decided to take the Marine logo, combine it with a tribute to the World Trade Center and the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. (Photo: T.J. Sapunarich)

His tribute run usually 30 to 45 minutes. He makes sure he's back by 8:46 a.m. because that's when the first plane hit Tower One, and he wants to respect that.

"I don't think I will ever get over it," said Sapunarich.

For a man of few words, T.J.'s message to those 176 souls, and to the rest of us, couldn't be more clear.

"Remember this day," said Sapunarich. "Even if it's for a couple minutes.

"Today is 9/11."

Survivors Guilt

For many, survivor’s guilt is a way to cope with feelings of helplessness during tragedy. It can last months, years or even decades.

Recently, mental health professionals reclassified survivors guilt from its own disorder to a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Symptoms of survivor's guilt include:

• Difficulty sleeping

• Withdrawal

• Recurrent nightmares about an event

• Anger

• Revenge for the traumatic event

If you think someone you love is affected by survivor’s guilt, you can contact the Counseling Associates of West Michigan to find a psychologist by clicking here.

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