Runners Honor Siller In '09 Tunnel To Towers Race

CBS 2 - September 27, 2009

by Dana Tyler

NEW YORK (CBS) - Despite a fire that destroyed race materials, thousands of runners turned out to trace the heroic steps firefighter Stephen Siller took on September 11 in the 8th annual Tunnel to Towers Run.

Around 18,000 shirts meant for this year's runners were burned, soaked or partially damaged when a UPS truck caught fire in the Travis Section of Staten Island. Registration forms, race bibs, running chips, plaques and trophies were also lost.

However, a hotel on Staten Island volunteered to get the salvageable shirts clean in time for the race.

"We had 18,000 shirts washed last night, folded today and delivered so everyone can have a shirt (Sunday) at our run. That's America and New York at its best," said Frank Siller, brother of firefighter Stephen Siller who died on September 11.

Friday night that spirit of giving was stronger than ever at the annual pre-race pasta appreciation dinner at the world financial center's Winter Garden.

The runners gather by the thousands at the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel for what's become a New York tradition.

The "Tunnel to Towers Run" was formed in tribute to Siller, a Staten Island native and married father of five, who on 9/11, made a hero's decision. Wearing more than 70 pounds of bunker gear, he ran through the tunnel to the burning towers to help.

The 34-year-old never made it out alive.

Siller was the youngest of seven brothers and sisters who all take part in organizing the 5k run.

It starts as Siller did, on the Brooklyn side of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel.

"We're so proud of him, and the thoughts are, 'Hey Steve, we're doing what you did that day, of course it's nothing compared to what you've done, but we're honoring you and your lost brothers and sisters,'" said Frank Siller, Stephen's brother. "And when you run in that tunnel, you say, what was he thinking about? what was going through his mind? And when you start thinking about it, you can't help well up and get overcome with emotion."

FDNY Chief of Department Sal Cassano runs the 5k every year and is key to the event's success. He's been there every year and said it's an overwhelming experience.

"You can't make it through the tunnel without stopping, getting choked up, getting emotional, and knowing that what we're doing there, knowing that we're recognizing everybody that gave their lives that day," said Cassano. "And it's not only the first response. We're also recognizing civilians that died that day."

Runners come from all over the world. Again this year, a ceremony honoring firefighters, along with the family festival, will be held steps from Ground Zero. In all, the Sillers expect over 25,000 participants.

Added Cassano: "It just shows that eight years later, we haven't forgotten, we'll never forget, and that's so big for the families of the members that were lost, to say hey, we haven't forgotten and we'll never forget."

They're proud that this Sunday there will be several thousand military personnel participating, including some wounded warriors.

"When you see these guys come here who have given so much, you know, literally given their limbs for our country so we can live in freedom, you come and see them run and they're thanking us, you know, for putting this on. You wanna fall to your knees and praise them and thank them for what they've done for our country," said Frank Siller.

More than $5 million has been raised in the past eight years with proceeds going to what Siller cared deeply about, including less fortunate children. Next month, "Stephen's House of the New York Foundling" opens, a residential diagnostic center for trouble children that stands for dignity and respect.

"That's what the building was all about. That's what Stephen's life was about," said Bill Baccaligni. "Those who've heard the story about Stephen on that day and just what he did in order to save others, we'd like to think in some way, we do that for the kids served here to save them, to get them back to their families or adoptive families. That's what our goal is."

Stephen's House of the New York Foundling will have room for 12 boys and 12 girls ages 11 to 15 who will stay there on average of three to six months. The diagnostic center opens officially on November 15, what would have been Siller's 43rd birthday.

The Run started at 9:30 a.m.