We all remember hearing when the second plane hit the World Trade Center’s South Tower on the morning of September 11. By ten o’clock the world knew the gut-wrenching reality, that this was no accident. It was an attack on our homeland.
When the first tower was struck, New York City firefighter Stephen Siller, off-duty at the time, was headed for the golf course. Upon hearing the news, he steered his truck back towards the city.
But when the second plane hit, traffic came to a standstill.
With no open roads, Stephen abandoned his vehicle and ran, 60 pounds of equipment on his back, through the gridlocked Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and into Manhattan. He was there when the towers collapsed—there to save as many lives as possible.
In the rescue, he lost his own life. Yet his family memorializes Stephen’s heroic deed, as well as the valor and sacrifice of the 343 other firefighters who died doing their job that morning.
Every September since that dreadful day, Stephen’s family organizes a 5K memorial run/walk from the tunnel in Brooklyn to where the Twin Towers once stood.
The first year saw 300 runners. This year, the fifteenth Tunnel to Towers 5K, more than 30,000 people participated, and many cities all over the country host their own Tunnel to Towers event.
Thanks to the attention garnered from the 5K, the Siller family has established a foundation to support and pay tribute to first-responders and service members critically affected by the ensuing war on terror.
They ask Freedom Alliance to attend Tunnel to Towers each year with some of our scholarship recipients—young men and women who have lost a parent in combat. One of our students is selected annually to receive an award from from the Siller Foundation and the Richard Sheirer Memorial Scholarship.
Shelby Summers was our beneficiary this year. Shelby’s father, Army Sergeant First Class Severin W. Summers, a Special Forces Operator, was killed in Afghanistan in 2009.
Shelby and her mother, Kelley, were joined in New York by Freedom Alliance staff, including our president Tom Kilgannon, and another scholarship recipient, Brandi Anderson. Brandi’s father was killed by enemy fire in Iraq, 2004.
In the days before Sunday’s 5K, Shelby and Brandi enjoyed a “boutique” tour of the city from Brian Sullivan of Our Town New York. They visited the historic High Line district, Chelsea Market, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, Central Park and other sites.
They rode to the 102nd floor of the One World Trade Center Observatory, also known as the Freedom Tower, for an unprecedented view of New York City, and later stopped by the reflecting pools, where the names of the victims of 9/11 are inscribed on bronze panels.
While in New York, the Freedom Alliance crew also met a new scholarship student, Annalee Paige, a freshman at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy near Broadway. Her father’s sacrifice while in the Marine Corps enables her to receive a scholarship from Freedom Alliance, and she is using it to pursue her dream of majoring in musical theater.
(Gunnery Sergeant James Paige was killed when his helicopter lost control. His last service was helping fellow Marines escape the aircraft, which had crashed into the ocean.)
On Saturday night, Shelby received her award at a special dinner and gave a touching speech. She quoted Abraham Lincoln, who said, “It’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.”
Shelby continued, “People like my father and Stephen Siller are embodiments of that quote, and I think Abe would’ve liked them as well.”
She described her experience with Freedom Alliance:
“The people I have met through this organization are people that I will honestly cherish for the rest of my life; friends that I will stay in contact with forever; mentors that have taught me so much, and that genuinely care for each and every student who receives this scholarship.
“I consider myself truly blessed to have been able to come across these people in the short life I’ve lived.”
Early the next morning, the Tunnel to Towers participants gathered at the starting line: the portal to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel.
Along the crowded route, with all the commotion and moving sights, the selfless spirit of Stephen Siller and other first-responders is tangible. As runners/walkers exit the tunnel, firefighters stand along the periphery, holding 343 banners, which feature the faces of the emergency personnel who died September 11, 2001.
This event, which retraces the steps taken during a brave firefighter’s final rescue, inspires us all to remember the sacrifices made by our first-responders and service members, and to never forget either the family members they have left behind.