9-11 10 Years Later: Stephen Siller

NEW YORK (WTOC) - Explaining what Stephen Siller did on the morning of September 11th is easier than understanding it.

Siller was on his way home that morning. Having just completed an overnight shift, the Brooklyn firefighter was off to play golf with his three brothers when news of a plane hitting the World Trade Center came across his scanner.

"Stephen had called the house and said there's something going on at ground zero,'' said his brother, George. "He said let the boys know I'll meet up with them later.''

Instead of continuing to Staten Island, Siller turned around and sped toward Manhattan.

But by the time he reached the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, it was already closed to all but emergency vehicles. That didn't stop him.

Siller abandoned his truck on the side of the road, strapped on 75 pounds of firefighter gear and ran the 1.7 miles through the tunnel and into lower Manhattan, where he was picked up by another crew responding to the alarm. None of them were ever seen again.

"He had a choice,'' said Siller's brother, Frank. "He could have just waited and found another way to get there. But that's what destiny is, that's what fate is. He's running through the tunnel and he has a beautiful wife, five beautiful kids. He had everything he wanted in life.''

"I was at my house and we see there's a fire at the World Trade Center and, like everybody else, we figure electrical or a small plane,'' added George Siller. "We were hoping he couldn't get there because of the traffic, but then we turned to each other and said, that SOB did get there. You know damn well he got there. And when those buildings fell, my brother Frank turned to us and said I think we just lost our brother.''

Siller was among the 343 firefighters killed when the Twin Towers collapsed.

And like so many families, his siblings were struck by an immediate need to preserve the legacy of the love one they lost on September 11th.

"We already had the foundation formed by Christmas,'' said George Siller. "And then we were trying to figure out what to do to honor him.''

"One of his friends one day said how about if you have a run and I said there are a lot of runs,'' added Frank. "And he goes, no run through the tunnel like he did. I almost fell on the floor. It was the perfect idea.''

The first Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers run was held in September 2002, as a fundraiser and as a way to honor the firefighter's courage and sacrifice by retracing his final heroic steps from Brooklyn to Ground Zero.

"The event has grown every year since, 20,000 runners now sharing the streets and a annual ceremony with celebrities, politicians and 343 uniformed firefighters standing shoulder to shoulder, showing in the most real terms possible what the department and the city lost that day.

"The race is both honoring and it's also a celebration of life,'' said George Siller. "And we honor all those firefighters and those 3,000 victims. and yet at the end of it, we have a party, we want these people that go there to not look at Ground Zero as just the loss of their loved one, but also a rebirth of our lives. We have to keep living.

The first year we did it, you could barely get through the tunnel,'' added Frank. "And I don't mean because it was so packed, which it was. But emotionally, you can't even imagine what's going through my mind or my other siblings minds knowing this is what your brother did a year earlier on 9/11.''

The ceremony was just as moving for George Siller.

"I looked around and I said, what else could there be?,'' he said. "It was so heartwarming and so satisfying, I felt we hit the note just right. I was fine right there.''

But like a starter's pistol, the Tunnel to Tower's run merely signaled the beginning for the Sillers and the foundation they formed to honor their brother.

Soon, the family would be organizing similar races across the country, a national golf tournament and a Lieutenant Dan Band concert with Gary Sinese, all with a common charitable theme.

"Let us do good,'' explained Frank, citing the foundation's mission statement. "Let us do good in any way, no matter how big or how small.''

And they have.

By the end of this year, they expect the Stephen Siller Foundation to have raised more than $14 million for children who have lost a parent, firefighter families and the military.

Its most recent project has been to help build houses for severely wounded veterans such as Specialist Brendan Marrocco, the first U.S. soldier to survive quadruple amputation.

"Never in our wildest dreams did we ever think our foundation would end up being this large and doing so many good things,'' said Frank Siller. "God is orchestrating everything from above, there's no doubt. And my brother, I think, is needling him.''

"I always say the Sillers aren't smart enough to do what we've done,'' added George. "It's an act of God.''

But their work is very much an act of love for the brother who, for the second time, brought the Sillers closer than they ever had been.

Stephen was the youngest of seven children, 14 years younger than the next closest in age. And by the time he was 10, the Sillers had lost both of their parents.

"You saw this kid who was so lost and so hurt and so wounded that we all came together,'' said Frank. "He stopped being a brother and he became a son.''

"Strangely,'' added George, "he became the center of the family, almost like a grandfather, even though he was the youngest.''

And he further united an already close family.

"He was the core,'' said Frank. "He was the core when he was born, he was the core as a child, he was the core as a teenager and he's the core now. He still keeps us together.''

And it's the thought that Stephen's children, the youngest just nine months old in 2001, will also have little memory of their father that keeps the Sillers finding new ways to show them and the world who Stephen Siller was.

"He was very compassionate, very outgoing and would help anybody,'' said George. "He was the one to pick you up at the airport, he made every one of our kids little league games and plays and graduations.''

"Destiny and fate are unbelievable at times,'' added Frank. "And what he did that day, we're just so proud of him. He didn't waste a day and we know why. And the main reason we started the foundation was so his kids would know their dad was a hero, there's no question about it.''

"Well his memory is alive and I find that very important not so much now, but down the road,'' continued George. "His kids can look back and tell their kids, this was my dad. There's so much that happened. There's video proof of all his deeds and there's concrete evidence of what he created through his sacrifice.''

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