The Miracles Keep Coming For Siller Tunnel-To-Towers Run

SI Advance - September 21, 2009

by JAY PRICE

It's not an accident that when the vanguard of volunteers from the Firefighter Stephen Siller Tunnel-to-Towers Run meet for the last time before the race, it's in the cramped old gym at the St. Francis Friary on Todt Hill, where the seminarians once played an unrepentant brand of no-blood, no-foul basketball back in the day.

Russell Siller, the dead firefighter's oldest brother, who took care of Stephen after their parents died when Stephen was 10, spent a chunk of his early life in the seminary, where humility was part of the curriculum.

In a world increasingly populated by yahoos who jump up at ballgames or concerts - or, more recently, in the United States House of Representatives - to make a spectacle of themselves for fun or profit, the Siller Run is conducted in a spirit of perpetual wonder.

Maybe it's the enormity of their brother's dedication, and his sacrifice - Siller was the fireman who ran through the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel with 70 pounds of equipment on his back the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, and got to the World Trade Center just in time to die - that keeps the Sillers grounded.

Like Bobby Thomson, who hit the most famous home run in baseball history and has spent the next 58 years wondering what all the fuss was about, the Sillers still manage to be surprised that so many strangers want to follow in the footsteps of a New York hero.

PIPE DREAM

It was that way on Day One, when they took their pipe dream of a race through the tunnel to the authorities, half afraid it might be wishful thinking, and nobody said no.

It was always their intention to put on a race to honor their brother's memory, and his heroism; and, through their brother, the uncommon heroism that was so common the morning the hijackers flew the planes into the buildings.

They just didn't know it would be this race, the one that grows a little grander in scale each September - more than 1,000 West Point cadets will join a field of 20,000 runners and walkers on the Brooklyn side of the tunnel next Sunday - and has become a rallying point for firemen, cops, the military, and anybody who is moved by man's capacity for service to his fellow man.

There have been thousands of memorials for the men and women who perished when the buildings came down, each one eloquent in its way; just none that speak so directly to the selfless sacrifice of the firemen who raised the bar that day.

"Like Paul Revere's ride," one of the Siller brothers said the first time he surveyed the scene from the Brooklyn side of the tunnel, the Manhattan skyline so close you'd think the buildings were built on top of the toll plaza.

"He knew what he was getting into."

GOOD WORKS

Maybe that's why the race has been such a magnet for those who run toward danger when everybody else is running away - and those of us who can only hope we'd respond the same way.

The by-products of the race - Stephen's House at the New York Foundling, which will provide temporary living quarters for teenagers removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect, is the latest shining example - are just one more reason to pay attention.

"We call them miracles," George Siller was saying a few nights ago at the friary, looking a little sheepish at his use of the word.

He laughed, shook his head.

"The miracles keep on coming," he said.

So it was that George and his sister Janis Hannan found themselves in Wake Forest, N.C., earlier this month - the "original" Wake Forest, not the college with the occasionally high-profile basketball team - watching a few hundred elementary-school kids from Franklin Academy run up and down the hills adjacent to the school with their bookbags on their backs, emulating Stephen Siller's run as part of the school's Heroes Day.

The next day, the town held its own Tunnel-to-Towers Run.

A dip in the road, where it passed under some railroad tracks, was their tunnel.

The town water tower served as the towers.

Best they could do with what they had.

And when the first of the Wake Forest firemen who ran the race in their turnout gear came to talk to the Sillers, the way they always do, he had a story that hit close to home.

"It turned out he came from a family where five of his brothers and sisters were adopted," the dead fireman's brother was saying in the little gym in a friary, where the miracles just keep on coming.