Tunnel-to-Towers Run draws 25,000

SI Advance - September 28, 2009

by Tom Dowd

They were huddled in doorways throughout Red Hook and camped under trees in Coffey Park. This was 90 minutes before the start of the Stephen Siller Tunnel-to-Towers Run earlier today and there were hours still to go before the rain would stop.

But the streets of Brooklyn were just starting to fill with a crowd so overwhelming that they gave up trying to keep track of it all.

"I don't know because so many people showed up today even in this weather," said Frank Siller. "We had probably going into today, runners and walkers somewhere about 15 to 17,000 people at least. I'm going to say ‘ I don't know' there's just so many people we couldn't even count ‘em.

"At the end of it all, there were a couple of thousand people still waiting to register. We just let ‘em go. They wanted to participate. So I'm going to say we had about 25,000 people here, without a doubt."

Eight years on, the power of the event and the legacy of Stephen Siller, who ran through the tunnels on Sept. 11, 2001 with 75 pounds of gear on his back to get to the World Trade Center, only continues to grow.

Siller, a West brighton resident, was supposed to be golfing with his brothers that day, a sunny Tuesday, perfect for enjoying a day off with 18 holes. Instead, he turned around when he heard the news of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers and was killed along with 342 of his brother firefighters.

It's a word, and a theme, that runs through this race.


Firefighters from around the country and across the Atlantic run as part of the "Brother to Brother" Firefighter Remembrance Program. But they're not the only examples.

They come in groups to the Siller run, dressed in uniform, even if it's only a T-shirt. From the United States Military Academy cadets, to the Petrides High School girls' soccer team to a handful of University of Scranton rugby players.

Families, really, of all kinds, just like a firehouse, following Stephen Siller's path.

"It's inspiring," said Frank Siller. "To see the Fire Department, their involvement. To see the military, their involvement. To see the young kids. If I tell you how many children, like ages 12 to 16, that volunteered, it's inspiring. To see high school kids that don't want to get out of bed in the morning and go to school, but they come here and volunteer at four o'clock in the morning, that's inspiring. Colleges, basketball, volleyball, track teams. It's all so moving that it just all comes together. It's pretty remarkable."

The run comes just six weeks before another milestone in the Siller family's ongoing crusade to help children. Stephen's House, a new facility operated by the New York Foundling, is complete and ready for a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Nov. 15, which would have been Stephen Siller's 43rd birthday.

The home will house 24 teenagers - "The neediest of the needy," said Frank Siller - when it opens.

"Stephen's House is unbelievable," said Frank Siller. "To have a home built in honor of your brother, with his name on it, it's very emotional. There's so many emotional things that happen here. It's funny, when my sister was young, she volunteered for the New York Foundling.

"Now, after all this tragedy and what has happened to us, we've come full circle and we started getting involved in the Foundling. Because it started originally as an orphanage. My brother Stephen, by age 10, my mother died when my brother was eight and at 10 my father was gone. So it means a lot to us that we have Stephen's house done."

The eighth running of the event didn't come without some hiccups. There was the construction on Vesey Street, site of the biggest block party you'll ever see after the run. There was the UPS truck that caught fire on Friday while carrying 18,000 race T-shirts. The FDNY salvaged as many as they could. Richard Nicotra and his staff at the Hilton Garden Inn, Bloomfield, won a race against time to clean them. There was, finally, the rain.

None of it could make a dent in the strength of what the Siller family has created, an event that has raised $5 million and motivated people from around the world to be a part of it.

"This is the most [rain] we've ever had, and this is the most we've ever had in terms of people," said Frank Siller. "The spirit, the American spirit, the spirit of individuals who have their heart in the right place, they don't care about adversity. They're going to overcome."

It didn't seem to dampen the spirits of anybody, as they finished the run and filled Vesey Street with barely an inch to spare.

On his way to the burgers and the beers, an old firefighter came across the finish line and past the podium, then reached across a barrier to shake hands with a friend.

"A beautiful day," he said. "I didn't feel a drop."