Stephen Siller was 8 years old when his dad went in for a relatively simple operation and wound up dying after a blood clot formed. Two years later, Stephen's mom died of cancer.
He was the youngest of seven Siller kids in their Staten Island neighborhood. His siblings raised him.
"He was a vibrant person who was willing to do anything for anybody,'' said one of his brothers, Frank. "I think he understood the urgency to life, that we are not here a long time.''
Stephen had just finished an overnight shift as a New York City firefighter and was driving to his Staten Island home on Sept. 11, 2001. He planned to head out with Frank and their other two brothers for a round of golf. He would finish the round and hang out with his wife, Sally, and their five children.
But Stephen picked up news on his scanner about the attack on the World Trade Center. He turned around his vehicle and steered toward the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. Traffic wasn't being allowed through the tunnel. So he strapped on his 60 pounds of firefighter gear and sprinted along the catwalk toward Manhattan. Stephen was picked up by a fire crew at the end of the tunnel and transported to West Street and Liberty near Ground Zero.
Neither Stephen, 34, nor any of his Squad Co. 1 mates survived.
More than 20,000 participants from as far as England and Hawaii will take part in the eighth annual FDNY Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Run/Walk on Sunday. The 3.1-mile event retraces Siller's path from the tunnel to the World Trade Center, a heartbreaking and heartwarming tribute to the 343 firefighters, policemen, EMTs, construction workers and others who died trying to save lives.
The event has raised more than $5 million for burn victims, orphans, Katrina relief and other causes.
"In his eulogy, I called him 'multiplicity man,'" Frank Siller said. "He was all over the place, all the time. He wanted to be able to make a difference. I had no doubt — zero doubt — when that building went down, that my brother was in it.''
We all have a connection to Sept. 11, some more direct and deeper than others, all lasting. Forty-four Orange County residents died as the result of the attacks that day, including 27 firefighters. The county has become home to so many New York City firefighters looking for serene surroundings.
"The story touches everyone,'' said Goncalo Pinheiro. "The atmosphere is unbelievable.''
Pinheiro has run every Tunnel to Towers event and will make it an annual experience as long as he's physically able. Come Sunday, his eyes will get watery as he enters the tunnel, as he sees the tributes to victims, as he crosses the finish line 100 yards from Ground Zero.
Pinheiro, a 36-year-old Balmville resident, teaches at Gidney Avenue Magnet School in Newburgh. His father-in-law is a former New York City fire chief who retired a few years before Sept. 11. His dad's a volunteer firefighter still responding in Westchester County.
"The second part of the tunnel, you start seeing all the volunteers in there with flags of each firefighter that died,'' Pinheiro said. "That's always emotional.''
Mae and George Siller were spiritual folks who taught their children the value of respect and unselfishness. George would visit hospitals to pray with the sick.
"We were very poor,'' Frank Siller said. "But we didn't know it. We knew what was very important in life. And we knew we had each other.''
Of all the messages that will be shared come Sunday, of all the wonderful causes benefitting from the Tunnel to Towers voyage, the Siller family reminds us of life's greatest gift. We have each other.