Thousands of T-shirts created for a race honoring a firefighter who died trying to save lives on Sept. 11 were destroyed last night when a truck caught fire in Travis. But befitting the resiliency of the late Stephen Siller, organizers say even with the heartbreaking setback, tomorrow's run will go on.
"This is not stopping us from having this race on Sunday," said an exhausted George Siller, who was at the scene last night with his brother, Frank Siller, trying to salvage as many shirts as possible for the Tunnel-to-Towers Run from Brooklyn to Ground Zero. The run retraces the route their late brother took on Sept. 11 to get to the World Trade Center in Manhattan.
George Siller said a total of 18,000 T-shirts were burned, soaked or partially damaged by the fire. Along with the shirts, registration forms, race bibs, running chips and some plaques and trophies also were destroyed.
The incident occurred at 7:52 p.m., according to the FDNY. Siller said a UPS driver had taken the South Avenue exit off the West Shore Expressway and was coming up Chelsea Road, making a left-hand turn onto South Avenue on the overpass, when his truck suddenly caught fire. The driver, who was alone, stopped and jumped out. The truck, which was still burning, rolled back down the overpass and stopped a few feet away from the intersection.
"The truck just gave out. The engine went on fire and the driver had to jump out of the truck," Siller said.
The truck was still smoldering late last night as firefighters sprayed the inside with water. Hundreds of wet and charred cardboard boxes full of T-shirts and other items littered the middle of Chelsea Road and the sidewalk. Firefighters spent hours sifting through the damaged shirts and other items to salvage what they could.
Siller said the driver was taking the items to the UPS facility in Travis because the company had donated space there to the Siller family for storage.
"It appears it was accident," said FDNY Division 8 Deputy Chief James Leonard, noting the fire was not deemed suspicious.
"This is ironic, but you know what? They [the Siller family] will turn it around, just like the Siller family worked to make something good out of a tragedy. They will take this and make something good out of this, too," Leonard said.
George Siller was at home when he got the call, after wrapping up a 10-hour registration program at the Petrides Educational Complex in Sunnyside.
"My brother Stephen was good at bouncing back. He wouldn't let this stop him and it won't stop us," he said. Obviously, he said, not every runner who shows up tomorrow will get a T-shirt this year, but the run is not about the T-shirts.
This will reaffirm people's "belief in why they come. It's not about T-shirts. They are there to support the FDNY, NYPD and the civilians who died on 9/11."
Business entrepreneur Richard Nicotra, who owns the Hilton Garden Inn and Hampton Inn & Suites in Bloomfield with his wife, Lois, pledged to have any of the salvageable shirts washed in time for the race, Siller said.