Stephen Siller gave his life trying to save others on 9/11. Now a foundation founded in his memory, Tunnel to Towers, aids America’s most critically wounded warriors from the War on Terror.
When 34-year-old New York City firefighter Stephen Gerard Siller got off the late shift at Squad 1, Park Slope, Brooklyn, on September 11, 2001, he drove to join his brothers for a game of golf. But when news came over his scanner about the first plane hitting the Twin Towers, he called his wife, Sally, and asked her to tell his brothers he’d catch up with them later. Then he turned around and retrieved his gear at Squad 1. He would never play that golf game; neither would he ever see Sally or their five children again.
To reach the World Trade Center towers, he had to pass through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, but he found it was closed. He strapped on his 60 pounds of gear and ran through the traffic gridlock to the towers.
No one knows for certain what happened after that. He was never seen again; his body was never found. But in his memory a beneficent organization was created to aid critically wounded veterans and certain others in need. It is named the Stephen Siller Tunnel To Towers Foundation in honor of Stephen’s journey from the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel to the collapsing World Trade Center towers. In February 2015 HistoryNet’s editor Gerald D. Swick interviewed Stephen’s brother Frank about that foundation.
History Net: You are a brother of Stephen Siller. Tell us a little about the person you knew before the events of 9/11.
Frank: Stephen was the youngest of seven siblings, I was 14 when he was born and our oldest brother, Russ, was 25 years old. To us he was our gift from God and a real miracle. But my brother Stephen experienced what I wouldn’t want any child to have to go through—our dad died when Stephen was eight-and-a-half-years-old and by the time Stephen was 10, he had also lost our mom to cancer. Although he was orphaned by age 10, he was blessed to have six much-older siblings who played an integral part in his upbringing, especially our oldest brother Russell and his wife Jackie.
When Stephen was about 18 years old he moved from Russell’s home in Rockville Center, Long Island, New York, back to Staten Island, and he lived and worked with me for a period of time. Ironically, while back on the Island he was re-introduced to a young lady named Sarah Wilson—the same Sally Wilson that he walked to grammar school with when he was a 10-year-old boy. Eventually Stephen and Sally married and started their young family.
Stephen was a devoted and loving husband, father of five, a brother and neighbor. He had a big, infectious personality. People gravitated toward him and claimed him as their best friend because he was the type of guy who was willing to do anything for anybody, anytime.
So it was right in line with who he was, when he decided he wanted to serve and protect others and become a New York City firefighter.
HN: How did the Stephen Siller Foundation come to be formed? What was the impetus for creating a foundation that would build homes for wounded veterans and first responders as a means of honoring your brother?
Frank: It was no surprise to our family that Stephen made the choice to run through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel with 60 pounds of gear on his back on 9/11 to help save lives. His decision was in keeping with how he was living his life every day. Almost immediately after Stephen’s heroic run we realized early on we needed to do something to honor what he did.
In his memory, the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation was established in December 2001, to follow in his footsteps and “do good” by making a positive difference in the lives of others. The mission of the Foundation is to honor the sacrifice of Stephen and honor the military and first responders who continue to make the supreme sacrifice of life and limb for our country.
As background, in 2009, Sgt. Brendan Marrocco was the first quadruple amputee to survive any war, and as it turned out, he was a fellow Staten Islander. The Foundation made a commitment to build Brendan the kind of home that would help him regain some of the freedom he lost through his injuries. After the home was completed and we saw firsthand the power to heal that this kind of home was able to give Brendan, we knew that it was a natural fit for our Foundation. That is how the Building for America’s Bravest program was born.
Designed to help the veteran maximize independence and maintain a high quality of life, each “smart home” is constructed from the ground up with the veteran’s needs in mind. After all, many of these men and women joined the military to pick up the torch from the battle that started on 9/11. The Foundation does many things, none more important than taking care of these catastrophically injured military who have so bravely served our nation.
The Foundation has several other ways in which we honor the heroic life and death of Stephen and his fellow firefighter brothers. We have a Never Forget program in which we present an annual Tunnel To Towers Run in New York City to retrace Stephen’s final steps through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and to honor all FDNY (Fire Department City of New York) who perished on that fateful day; the Foundation also hosts national runs. The Foundation has created a mobile exhibit as a tribute to all those whose lives were sacrificed on September 11, 2001. The 9/11 NEVER FORGET Mobile Exhibit is a tool to educate America’s youth about the historic events of that day. The mobile Exhibit is a high-tech, 53-foot tractor trailer, which unfolds into a 1,000 square-foot exhibit and serves as a poignant reminder of that tragic day. The memorial provides interactive education, including artifacts such as steel beams from the towers, documentary videos, recordings of first-responder radio transmissions and live tours by FDNYfirefighters. Entrance into the exhibit is always free of charge. The Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation is committed to ensuring we never forget.
HN: There are so many wounded and injured veterans and first responders who could use the assistance the Foundation provides. How do you decide who will be chosen to receive that assistance?
Frank: Sad to say, the decision on who we build a “smart home” for is clear-cut. You don’t want to fit the criteria. If you do, you have paid a price that no one should have to pay for giving us our freedom and protecting us. Every home goes to the most catastrophically injured service members who are coming home —some without three or four limbs, paralyzed, severely burned, etc. I believe that it is our duty and responsibility to take care of these great heroes. We owe it to them.
We have either completed, or are in the construction or planning stages of over 40 homes. Unfortunately there are still a great number (approximately 200) of these great men and women who are waiting for a home that will help them live safely and independently. We are constantly seeking ways to raise money for a new home—each construction averages a half-million dollars.
HN: What are some of the ways the organization is raising funds?
Frank: There are many ways that we raise the funds we need to continue with our commitment to give these great American heroes the homes they need and deserve. The Foundation holds events such as golf outings and dinners; we have engaged corporate sponsors; we host the Tunnel To Towers Runs with sponsors for our programs; we have avenues for planned giving such as wills and charitable trusts. But primarily our online donations from our Tunnel2towers website http://tunnel2towers.org/ is our greatest source of making sure our efforts continue. For example, shortly after all of New York and the nation grieved over the loss of the slain NYPD officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu our Foundation was able to raise $1 million in two weeks to pay off the mortgages for their families. This was only possible through the generous online donations of 10,000 individuals. We are a grassroots organization, and we depend on the goodness of the ordinary Joe as well as corporations who sponsor us to continue our mission to do good.
HN: Tell our readers who may want to assist your mission but can’t participate in the fundraising events like the 5K runs how they might be able to contribute.
Frank: Readers are welcome to go to www.tunnel2towers.org and learn about our programs and can donate.
HN: Thank you for taking time to tell our readers about Tunnel to Towers. Is there anything you’d like to add in closing?
Frank: When we first started the Foundation to honor Stephen’s actions on 9/11 we had no grand plan. We only knew that his indomitable spirit of love and goodness needed to live on. God has put us on a course, a course that has taken us into the broken lives of catastrophically injured military to bring them hope and healing. Through the generosity of all the people who support our mission Stephen’s legacy and the legacy of all those who perished on 9/11 continues to do good.