“True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.” — Arthur Ashe
One gorgeous, sunny September morning in 2001, the “city that never sleeps” bustled like any other Tuesday morning, with students hurrying to school and professionals rushing to catch the next metro downtown to try and make it to work on time. A 34-year-old Brooklyn firefighter named Stephen Gerard Siller had just finished the late shift at Squad 1 and was on his way to play a round of golf with his brothers when his scanner crackled to life. A plane had just hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. He raced back to the station to get his gear.
On his way, Siller called his wife, Sally, and asked her to postpone the golf date. He quickly retrieved his gear and attempted to drive across what was then known as the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel (now called the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel), a nearly two-mile route that connects Brooklyn to Manhattan. But the tunnel was already closed, and traffic was a nightmare.
He parked his black Ford pickup, strapped 60 pounds of gear to his back and set out on foot, running through the tunnel and straight into the scene that, by that time, had most of America frozen in disbelief, riveted to their televisions.
No doubt, Siller fought valiantly alongside his brothers that morning as they tried desperately to evacuate the doomed North and South Towers. He was last seen just outside the South Tower minutes before it collapsed at 9:59. Time seemed to stand still, as a blinding cloud of gray thundered through lower Manhattan.
When the dust began to settle, the only sound that could be heard was the shrill pitch of alarms attached to firefighters who would never make it out of the raging inferno. As the hours passed, the sounds grew less shrill, and before long, could barely be heard at all.
That terrible September day, in addition to thousands of civilians, 71 law enforcement officers and 343 firefighters perished, including 12 members of Siller’s squad. Survived by his wife of 10 years, five beautiful young children, and six siblings, by all accounts Stephen was one of a kind — full of life, and blessed with an abundance of friends and family.
It is because of his spirit and great sacrifice that the Siller family started the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, whose mission is not only to honor Stephen’s memory, but also to honor the “military and first responders who continue to make the supreme sacrifice of life and limb for our country.” In doing so, the foundation provides funds through the “Legacy of Love” program that provides for children who are orphaned both here at home and abroad, community programs like the one that provided millions in relief and aide for victims of Hurricane Sandy, the Fallen First Responder Home Program, the Gold Star Family Home Program, the Footsteps to the Future Endowment, the National Run, Walk & Climb Series, and the 9/11 Never Forget Mobile Exhibit.
The foundation is perhaps best known for “Building for America’s Bravest” — a program that “builds high-tech ‘smart homes’ around the country for the most catastrophically injured service members.”
These programs wouldn’t be possible without the amazing annual fundraising efforts in memory of Stephen Siller. Since the foundation’s creation 18 years ago, millions have been raised through the NYC Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers 5k Run & Walk, an event that retraces the steps Siller took that fateful day on September 11, 2001. In 2019, 55 cities hosted (or will host) the event, including Myrtle Beach, SC; North Conway, NH; Orlando, FL; Perry, GA; Cape Girardeau, MO; Buffalo, NY; Alpena, MI and many others. Thousands of runners and walkers of all ages from all over the world join the effort.
The latest fundraising effort to benefit Tunnel to Towers happened two weeks ago when Nike chose to pull their latest design that included, in their estimation, the “racist” Betsy Ross flag. Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh acted quickly, got his team to design a t-shirt featuring the Betsy Ross flag, and chose to donate all proceeds to T2T. To date (9/1/19), Rush has raised and donated more than $3 million.
It’s not difficult to imagine what Stephen Siller would say were he here to witness the many fundraising efforts that allow this abundance of work to continue in his name. Stephen’s life was guided by the philosophy of St. Francis of Assisi: “while we have time, let us do good.” And that’s exactly how he lived his life, to the very last moment.
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” — John 15:13
(portions of this article, written by me, appeared on Opportunity Lives on October 2, 2015. It was edited to fit current events. Photo credit: Tunnel to Towers)