On the morning of 9/11, FDNY firefighter Stephen Siller was off duty and heading to meet his brothers to play golf when he was alerted of the attacks on the Twin Towers. Immediately, Siller traded his golf clubs for his fire uniform and abandoned his truck in the traffic jammed Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and ran, in 60 lbs of gear, to the World Trade Center.
Siller left behind a wife and five children, along with countless family and friends who adored him. Two of his daughters currently attend Manhattan College, junior Olivia Siller and freshman Genevieve Siller.
In the aftermath of his death, Siller’s family formed the Tunnel to Towers Foundation in his honor, with nearly 100 percent of profits going to aid injured military and first responders. They also started the Building America’s Bravest program, which designs and constructs high-tech homes for the most critically wounded soldiers.
“We came together, and we know the sacrifice that was made by these men and women in uniform, and what better way to say thank you than building them a home,” Chairman and CEO of Tunnel to Towers, Frank Siller, said in an interview with CBS news.
Every year, the foundation hosts a 5K to honor Siller and all of the other fallen American heroes. From the Battery Tunnel to the World Trade Center, runners trace the heroic footsteps they took on 9/11.
Led by firefighters, the first wave of this year’s 25,000 runners gathered at the start line, and former New York City mayor and Jasper alum Rudy Giuliani sent them off. Amidst this body of runners, over 100 MC students ran in support of Siller’s family.
Junior Natalie Tousignant, a close friend of the Siller daughters, ran for the first time this year and reflected on the day with gratitude.
“The run was such a cool experience. Coming out of the tunnel and seeing all the police officers lining the path holding American flags was really powerful, especially because it seems backwards that they should be cheering for us at all. We should be cheering for them, and in a way, that’s what this race was,” she said.
“Running Tunnel to Towers is a way that we can try to show how grateful we are for how police officers and firefighters risk their lives for us every time they go to work and often when they’re away from work too,” she said.
For some students, like junior lacrosse player Julia LoRusso, this run hits home. “This is my second year doing this. My teammate Kaitlyn Cunningham lost her uncle on 9/11 and so did I, so this is nice for me. It’s a powerful day,” she said.
Olivia Siller, who spends the day cheering on runners alongside her family, expresses what this day is like for her and the teamwork that makes it all happen.
“Tunnel to Towers started as a family operation but has grown so much. We are so thankful to have the best volunteers in the world. They come back every year and are so loyal to the foundation. We’re forever grateful,” Siller said.
As for all of the MC student runners, she feels lucky and supported. This is the 15th annual race, and Siller is astonished by how participation and donations have increased each year.
“It actually gets higher every year, it’s amazing. I love the widespread reach. People come from all over the world, it’s insane,” she said.
While this time of year is an emotional one for her and her family, the race brings them a sense of togetherness and comfort.
“I think that having that spotlight of the race is difficult for me because it is a constant reminder of my biggest loss. However, seeing all of the amazing things that come from the race makes it worth it,” Siller said.
People of all ages and walks of life take part in the event. Police officers and firefighters from New York and other states run in their gear, as do ROTC cadets and members of the Army, Navy and Marine Corps. High school and college sports teams, company teams, and families wear matching t-shirts for the race.
As runners emerge from the tunnel to see the WTC standing tall in the September sun, over 300 emergency responders hold memorial flags of their deceased colleagues and line the streets to high five runners as they pass. Volunteers, youth cheerleading teams, street performers, marching bands, and onlookers cheer runners and walkers the whole way through.
After the finish line, thousands come back together on Vesey Street to eat and celebrate. A moment of silence is held for the lives that were lost that day, those who fell ill after working at Ground Zero, and those who went to battle after the attacks. For a fitting conclusion, Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” played, the massive crowd singing the chorus in unison.