Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Hero I’ve Never Met

This really beautiful post is from Abby.

Stephen Siller, a firefighter with Squad 1 on Union Street in Brooklyn, had Sept. 11, 2001 off. He was going to play 18 holes of golf with his brothers. When he heard on his scanner what happened at the WTC, he grabbed his gear, got in his truck, and made his way to the Brooklyn side of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. There was no way to get his truck through to the other side. With no other option, he put on his gear, weighing more than 70lbs, and took off running through the tunnel. He made it to the other side. He was last seen on Liberty and West Streets.

My husband and I spent Sunday morning with 24,998 strangers in the pouring rain awaiting the start of the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers 5K Run (and walk). We lined up Coffey Park in Red Hook and peered over the walls of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, watching the Wounded Warriors take off first in their ultra-light carbon bike frames. The Bridge and Tunnel Authority even wrote a little message to us in their illuminated display: Welcome Tunnel to Towers Runners. Roadway is slippery.

Stephen was married with five children, and he himself was one of 8 or 9 siblings. According to his brother, who was quoted in the Staten Island Advance, their mother died when Stephen was 8, and their father died soon after. These kids had only each other, and that is why the foundation created in his memory helps children in need including those who have been burned and those who have lost one or more parents. The run, the foundation, and a new New York Foundling facility are just some of the ways that Stephen’s family chose to honor his memory. They transformed tragedy into inspiration with the goal of helping total strangers; something Stephen dedicated his life to doing.

I can’t imagine how many volunteers are needed to produce this event. Between registration, logistics, what to do when the truck with t-shirts and registration materials catches fire (yep, that happened, too), and all the people needed to cheer runners on, it must be thousands.

Although I never had the honor of meeting Stephen Siller, I know he was a remarkable person. To inspire thousands of people, the majority of whom are strangers, to honor his memory, and the memory of his brother firefighters, is a true legacy.

For me, the most memorable part of the morning was ascending through the Manhattan end of the tunnel, with daylight streaming in, and I think some appropriate song by Queen blasting on the speakers installed just for the morning. On the left side we were greeted by hundreds of USMA cadets holding American flags. On the right side, we were greeted by hundreds of firefighters in their uniforms. Each held a banner with the photograph and name of a firefighter who died Sept. 11 (or in the case of Robert Beddia and Joseph Graffignino, who died at the Deutsch Bank fire) and cheered us on, applauding, yelling, and whooping. The rain mixed with my tears and I wasn’t sure if my heart was going to break from sadness or burst with pride.

Every member of Stephen’s family is part of the creation and organization of the day— his sisters, his brothers, his children, and his wife. On Sept. 27 we were all part of Stephen’s family, and that was the greatest feeling of all.

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