Family of NYC firefighter killed on 9/11 keeps Tunnel-to-Towers tradition alive amid COVID-19

Tunnel to Towers
Led by Frank Siller, and accompanied by MTA Bridges & Tunnels President Daniel DeCrescenzo and Acting Vice President and Chief of Operations Richard Hildebrand, the walk commemorates FDNY Firefighter Stephen Siller’s run through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel (now the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel) on September 11, 2001, before his death at the World Trade Center. (Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit)

Since its inaugural in 2002, the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Run has grown into one of the biggest annual running events in New York City — raising millions of dollars for first responder families while honoring the legacy of a firefighter who died while responding to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. 

The run through the Hugh Carey (nee Brooklyn-Battery) Tunnel to the World Trade Center site usually takes place on the final Sunday in September, with tens of thousands typically huddling at the starting line near the Brooklyn entrance to the tubes. But the crowd was absent on Sept. 27, as the event was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nevertheless, members of the Siller family, the nonprofit Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, and the MTA Police Department kept the tradition alive on Sunday by retracing the fallen firefighter’s steps themselves. 

Frank Siller, brother of Stephen Siller and CEO of the Tunnel to Towers Foundation, led the way as the group walked along the narrow service pathway of the 1.7-mile Carey Tunnel’s Brooklyn-bound tube as traffic passed alongside.

The Siller family and MTA officials head toward the tunnel entrance in Brooklyn.
(Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit)

Stephen Siller was off-duty when terrorists hijacked and crashed two airliners into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. He grabbed his gear and raced toward the World Trade Center site in his own vehicle, but was unable to pass through the closed Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel.

Siller then put his firefighting gear on and ran through the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel to get to the World Trade Center. He died in the ensuing collapse of the South Tower.

His story served as the inspiration for the annual Tunnel to Towers Run and the creation of the nonprofit benefiting first responder families. By the end of this year, the Tunnel to Towers Foundation is expected to have raised more than $250 million to support police officers, firefighters, EMTs, and service members across the U.S. 

Along with its charitable efforts, the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation also increased its role in this year’s observance of the 9/11 anniversary. 

After the 9/11 Memorial and Museum opted to forego this year’s reading of the victim’s names at the annual memorial ceremony because of the pandemic, the foundation held its own reading a block away at nearby Zuccotti Park. They also created a “Towers in Light” tribute, resembling the Tribute in Light in Lower Manhattan, near the Flight 93 Memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. 

The Siller family and MTA officials hold a press conference on the Manhattan side of the Carey Tunnel on Sept. 27, 2020.
(Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit)

After exiting the tube near Battery Park on Sept. 27, Frank Siller expressed gratitude to the MTA for allowing the tradition to continue, even as it was downsized this year due to the pandemic.

“It was a heroic run, it was his (Stephen’s) final footsteps, but those footsteps have inspired so many people to do good, to do the right thing,” Siller said. “It’s different this year. We should have 30,000-plus people running through the tunnel and going by Ground Zero, but it’s just as important that we’re covering it and that we never forget.”

Siller remarked that the smallness of the run this year made it more intimate, and thoughts turned to his brother and the sacrifices he made on that fateful morning nearly two decades ago.

“For me, personally, the loss today is just as great as it was 19 years ago. You never get over it, you just learn to live with it. But the best way to live with it is to do something for somebody else,” Frank Siller said. 

Joining the Sillers for this year’s walk were Daniel DeCrescenzo, president of MTA Bridges and Tunnels, and Chief of Operations Richard Hildebrand. MTA Bridges and Tunnels oversees the Carey Tunnel.

“It’s critical that first responders and families of those who lost their lives know that we will never forget the sacrifices they and their loved ones made,” said DeCrescenzo. “It’s especially important that during this pandemic, when large events are being cancelled, we are able to keep the tradition going by safely remembering those who gave their lives to try to save others that faithful day.”