On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, firefighter Stephen Siller had just finished his night shift. He left his station house in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and started to head to his brother’s home on Staten Island. Stephen, along with his brothers Frank, Russ and George, were heading to Glenwood Country Club in New Jersey for a round of golf. He never made it.
The call came over the scanner.
“The World Trade Center, Tower No. 1 is on fire,” the voice said with urgency as the static made it crackle. “The whole outside of the building. There was just a huge explosion.”
Stephen called his wife Sally and told her to let his brothers know he’ll catch up with them later. He was turning his truck around to help. Planes had flown into the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center. When he got to Squad 1, with his other brothers already en route to Lower Manhattan, he grabbed his gear and drove to what was then called the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel.
It was closed to traffic. Its exit on the Manhattan side sits directly in the shadows of the two majestic buildings that had more than 100 stories to them and were filled with thousands of people. The youngest of seven siblings who had lost both parents by the time he turned 10, Siller followed the St. Francis of Assisi edict, “while we have time, let us do good.”
Stephen Siller was 34.
Inspiring a lasting legacy
Frank Siller was walking from Allentown to Bethel, PA., and beyond, when he spoke with Sporting News on the last day of August. He was surrounded by first responders on a warm, end-of-summer kind of day. While he spoke, he remained focused on his mission: ensuring people never forget the 2,977 people lost on a bright blue-skied day.
His journey began on Aug. 1 at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. It took him to Shanksville, Penn., on Aug. 21 and will end at Ground Zero — after retracing his brother’s steps, one foot in front of the other — on Saturday for the 20th anniversary.
But his Never Forget Walk: Following the Footsteps of the Fallen is just a sliver of what the Siller family has done. In the aftermath of the tragedy, they heeded that same call of St. Francis of Assisi.
“While we have time, let us do good.”
By December 2001, less than three months after an unfathomable tragedy, the Tunnel to Towers Foundation rose from the twisted metal, smoldering rubble and omnipresent ash that enveloped New York City.
20 years later, the foundation’s indelible impact is undeniable, as the non-profit has raised more than $250 million for a number of programs that include providing mortgage-free homes to catastrophically injured veterans and first responders, Gold Star and fallen first responder families with young children, and families with young children that lost a parent in the line of duty or to 9/11 illness. The foundation has also built smart homes (100 since 2010) for the most catastrophically injured veterans and, in the last 18 months, sent PPE to the most impacted cities across the country while helping pay off some of the mortgages for the families of first responders who died from COVID-19.
“The mortgages are our financial support that we give these families left behind. It’s the biggest burden they have, the biggest expense they’ll ever have by far and away, and a lot of them don’t know how they’re going to stay in their homes after their loved one gave their life or their community or their country. So, it is a tremendous relief for these families to know that they don’t have to worry,” noted Siller.
The foundation does, indeed, do good. Plain and simple. For the past 20 years, since the fateful day that changed their family and the world, they have not only honored Stephen’s legacy, but they’ve put one foot in front of the other to help the families who gave it all for their community and their country — literally.
“We just wanted to make sure that we never forget what he did and honor the sacrifice he made along with all those first responders,” said Siller, the chairman and CEO of the foundation, as he walked shoulder-to-shoulder with first responders when speaking with Sporting News on the phone. “A friend of his, Billy Codd, called me up and said: ‘Frank, how about if we have a run?’ And, I thought he meant a run in Clove Lakes Park on Staten Island (New York) or something like that. I said, ‘Billy, I really want to do something unique. Steven did something so unique.’ … He goes: ‘No, no, no, not a run through a park, do the same run that Stephen did through the tunnel.’ And I was so overcome with emotion when he said that because you know when you know the thing, the perfect thing to do, and it was just, it was a no brainer.”
LEARN MORE ON THE TUNNEL TO TOWERS FOUNDATION HERE
Since 2002, on a Sunday in September, as the weather chills and the leaves begin to fall, runners gather in the Ikea parking lot in Brooklyn, New York. They mill around in anticipation of what is to come: five kilometers of running and/or walking through the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel, through Lower Manhattan’s Battery Park City and ending at the corners of West and Murray Streets.
Some of the runners and walkers are wearing the Tunnel to Towers t-shirt designated for that year’s run. Others are wearing shirts that remember the fallen. In all, there are 2,500 West Point cadets running in cadence. NYPD recruits, military members, first responders, New Yorkers and others take their place among the firefighters, from all over, wearing different amounts of their gear — just like Stephen.
“Never in a million years did we think we were going do any of this stuff that we do. We’re just a very simple family that wanted to honor our brother and honor all those who died on 9/11,” said Siller, who had to meet with multiple government officials to get the permit back in 2002 to close the tunnel for the run, which was not an easy feat.
“To grow it to this point, if we just did that run itself would have been more than enough, to be quite frank with you, because it’s just a beautiful event.”
An event that started with 1,500 participants in 2002 has blossomed to an expected 30,000 in 2021. The run is not easy. Most of it is through the tunnel where the air feels heavy and dense. It’s a downhill slope — which tricks you into thinking it’ll be a piece of cake jog — until you look up and see hill after hill after hill to get out.
Your mind weighs with every hill, every breath, every footstep. You remember why you’re there. One foot in front of the other keeps you going. You remember the past and a future that assists the families of those who sacrificed it all. There’s an invisible string connecting everyone; it’s not just about the 5K, it’s about community. It’s about the greater good and giving back. As Frank told Sporting News: “It’s not a race; It’s to bring people together.”
And the foundation is just getting started.
“This is not ending at 20 years; this is never going to end. The need will always be there, therefore, yes, it’s a great legacy. Stephen will always be known as a firefighter that ran through the tunnel and he’s just symbolic of the great heroism of that day. We’re so proud and we’re doing this work, we’re proud of it to do it in his memory and his honor.”
“He created (the foundation) by what he did. We just loved him so much, we just follow through on his great act… He came out the other side of the tunnel to save people. We’ve come out the other side of the tunnel as a family to help people in his honor and honor all those who perished that day and it’s that simple.”