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‘Never forget’: 500-mile walk honors brother and all who died on 9/11
On Aug. 1, Frank Siller placed a wreath at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., to begin a 537-mile walk to mark the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. From Washington, he will walk to Shanksville, Pennsylvania, then to New York City — the three sites where four hijacked planes crashed on Sept. 11, 2001.
He’s walking in memory of the first responders who died when the Twin Towers in the World Trade Center fell, and for those in rescue and recovery who later died from inhaling toxic materials in the ruins. He’s walking to remember those who died when the Pentagon was hit and the passengers who died wrestling Flight 93 from the hijackers.
As the CEO and a founder of Tunnel to Towers Foundation, he’s walking to remember, too, the military troops who were called to serve after that attack and were killed or wounded.
He’s walking for the police and firefighters who have died in the line of duty.
Most of all, Siller, 68, is walking so that his brother, Stephen, will never be forgotten.
Stephen Siller, 34, was the off-duty firefighter who put on his gear and drove his truck to the two-mile Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. Finding it closed for security, he ran through to get to the burning buildings.
It was for him and for the others that the Siller family founded the Tunnel to Towers Foundation. It bears Stephen’s image and honors his legacy by telling his story of bravery and dedication. The foundation exists to serve other families who can tell stories of their own. Together, they find support and healing.
“Our parents always said to us kids, ‘If you feel bad for yourselves, do something for someone else and you’ll feel better,'” Siller said.
That was how George and Mae Siller lived their lives. They were devout Catholics and Third Order Franciscans, who are secular followers of St. Francis of Assisi. They ministered to the needs of others and raised their family in the spirit of the 12th-century saint. It was from a quote attributed to him that the foundation got its mantra: “While we have time, let us do good.”
In the past 20 years, the foundation’s Smart Home Program has helped severely injured veterans and first responders reclaim their independence with custom-designed homes. The Fallen First Responder Program pays off mortgages for the families of first responders who are killed in the line of duty, and who have young children.
The Gold Star Family Home Program provides mortgage-free homes to the surviving spouses and children of those who made the ultimate sacrifice while serving our country.
The foundation’s latest chapter is the proposed Let Us Do Good Village near Tampa, Florida, where 110 mortgage-free smart homes will be built for qualifying families. It’s meant to be a place of healing.
“An anonymous donor donated the property,” Frank Siller said. “God sends us people all the time.”
He’s hoping that the walk will inspire one million people to donate $11 a month to fund the programs. Out of each dollar donated, he noted, 95 cents are spent on projects.
|FOLLOW THE WALK|
Frank Siller has been training for the walk for a year and will be accompanied by a team in an RV. There were and will be parades, cookouts and other events at the following scheduled stops:
Aug. 14: Cumberland, Maryland
Aug. 21: Shanksville, Pennsylvania
Aug. 28: Hershey, Pennsylvania
Sept. 4: Easton, Pennsylvania
Sept. 5: Morristown, New Jersey
Sept. 10: Staten Island, New York
Memorial ceremonies will be held in Shanksville and at Ground Zero, where the Never Forget Walk ends on Sept. 11. For more details on the walk, and to donate, visit T2T.org/20-Anniversary.
“My brothers and sisters and I don’t get paid for our work with the foundation,” Siller said. “We have been able to deliver over 450 mortgage-free homes to the greatest of Americans, and we are very proud of that. We are a grassroots organization, and we bring people together. When they see the houses, they can say that they were part of what made that happen.”
Stephen was the youngest of seven children. He was 8 when his father passed away from an embolism at age 58. His mother died from cancer a year and a half later at age 54. In addition to Stephen and Frank (there were 14 years between them), the other siblings are Russell, George, Mary, Regina and Janis. Russell, who passed away a year and a half ago, had studied to become a Franciscan priest.
“But God had other plans for him to be a father, and he was the spiritual leader of our family,” Frank Siller said.
After the death of his parents, Frank went to live with Russell (who was 24 years older) and his family.
Stephen and his wife, Sally, have five children — Katie, Olivia, Genevieve, Jake and Stephen — ranging in age from 9 months to 9 years old when he was killed.
He finished his shift with Brooklyn’s Squad 1 that morning and planned to play golf with his brothers. When he heard on a scanner that a plane hit the North Tower, he called Sally and asked her to tell his brothers that he’d catch up with them later.
He returned to the station for his gear and drove to the tunnel that, by then, was shut down. He ran the distance, and it was later reported that he may have been picked up by other first responders.
Frank Siller saw the towers collapsing on the live TV broadcast. “I think I just lost my brother,” he told his mother-in-law.
Eleven men on Squad 1 died. Stephen’s body was never recovered.
With his 500-mile walk, and his family’s foundation, “We are honoring not just Stephen, but all of them who perished,” Siller said. “One firefighter who survived and lost four men said that one had said, ‘We’re probably not going home today.’ Can you imagine that? They knew there was a good possibility that they were never going home, and they still went in. This is what has to be remembered.”
The foundation has held walks, races, parades and ceremonies to honor them. Siller keeps in touch with many of the survivor families, and some of them will be meeting him along the walk.
They were there after the ceremony at the Pentagon. They will be in Shanksville, where their loved ones aboard Flight 93 resisted the hijackers, sending the plane deep into an empty field. It’s believed that the terrorists had planned to hit the Capitol Building.
Siller will meet other families at Ground Zero, where the walk will end with solemn ceremonies.
Most of Stephen’s children were too young to remember much about him, if anything at all. Those who knew him remember him as an extraordinary individual and dedicated firefighter, a man of faith who truly did lay down his life for others.
“Stephen’s spirit is what lingers with us,” Frank Siller said. “His body was what he used to save people, but his spirit really saved people. I would have liked to have had him recovered, but his burial place is at Ground Zero, and that’s why it’s sacred ground to me. We will never get over this. But helping families has been a beautiful journey, albeit one that I wish we didn’t have to take. I wish Stephen would still be with us, but that’s not the reality.”
Maryann Goginat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.