The Stephen Siller Tunnels2Towers Foundation is one of the best things to ever come out of Staten Island.
This week, Staten Islander News Organization interviewed Mr. Frank Siller, Chairman of the Stephen Siller Tunnel2Towers Foundation. While the interview focused on all the latest activities of the foundation focused on helping during the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s a whole lot more the foundation does, and as well as an incredible story behind it’s creation.
On 9-11-2001, Firefighter Stephen Siller, a 34-year-old Staten Islander assigned to Brooklyn’s Squad firehouse 1 in Park Slope, made history as a dutiful and patriotic American who gave everything he had for his Nation.
Although his shift had ended, Stephen wanted to help at the WTC site, where two planes had crashed into the Twin Towers that morning, piloted by crazed terrorists driven by an ideology of hatred for America.
In a story highlighting all that makes America truly great, a story that will undoubtedly become part of Americana lore and our national history, Stephen lived up to the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) motto of, “New York’s Bravest” and found his way to the World Trade Center that fateful morning.
With sixty pounds of firefighting equipment on his back, Stephen ran the entire length of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel to get to Lower Manhattan. The tunnel had already been closed to vehicular traffic by the time he arrived, but Stephen Siller could not be stopped and made it the towers on foot.
Stephen didn’t run from danger, he ran right into the heart of it, fixed on the singular goal of helping people in need, and assisting his brother firefighters deal with monumental tragedy.
Along with 342 other firefighters, Stephen laid down his life that day helping others. He didn’t have to be there; he chose to take on that burden because of the nature of his character.
Stephen Siller is remembered as an example of selflessness and untiring service to others, someone embodying qualities that we should all try our best to emulate.
The Stephen Siller Tunnels2Towers Foundation is one of our Nation’s most important nonprofits, helping members of our community in many vital ways.
There’s the Smart Home Program, providing mortgage-free smart homes to catastrophically injured veterans. There’s the Fallen First Responder Home Program, which pays off mortgages of fallen law enforcement officers and firefighters sacrificing their lives in the line of duty who have children. This program also pays off mortgages.
That’s not nearly all. There’s also the Gold Star Family Home Program, which provides mortgage-free homes to surviving spouses with young children. Gold Star families lost their loved ones serving in the US Armed Forces during armed conflict.
The Legacy of Love and Wings of a Hero Awards efforts help children who have become orphaned, or lost on of their parents, with economic assistance. Between the two, over 750,000 has been disbursed to children in need.
Stephen’s House of the New York Foundling facility is a refuge for children who have been abused and neglected. This dormitory is located right here on Staten Island, a five-story modern building with scenic views of the Verrazzano Narrows.
Believe it or not, that’s not even close to the entirety of what the Tunnel2Towers Foundation has done, in terms of helping others. There was also an orphanage rebuilt in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, and the 9/11 NEVER FORGET Mobile Exhibit. And a lot more.
What follows is a complete transcript of the interview. We would like to thank Mr. Siller again for granting us time out of his extremely busy schedule; we know that the Foundation, and Mr. Siller, work tirelessly to provide nonreligious, nonpolitical services to those in need, guided all the while by St. Francis of Assisi’s idea that we should all do good while we have the opportunity.
Call Transcription From Phone Interview Conducted on May 16, 2020
StatenIslander.Org Interviewer: Hi Frank, how are you?
Mr. Frank Siller: Okay, how are you today?
StatenIslander.Org Interviewer: I am good thanks. So I had some questions for you. So I can actually just go ahead with you with them if that’s all right.
Mr. Frank Siller: I am ready.
StatenIslander.Org Interviewer: Okay, so with regard to the meeting with President Trump and the Presidential Recognition Ceremony, was this your first meeting with President Trump?
Mr. Frank Siller: Yes, this is the first time that I’ve met with him and received any kind of recognition for the foundation. I’ve been at the White House before, we have been there, this is the [9/11 Victim Compensation Fund] when it was signed, I was invited down there by the president for that signing also.
StatenIslander.Org Interviewer: Okay. And-
Mr. Frank Siller: -This is the first time that I was able to speak to him on a one-on-one basis, prior to receiving the Award, and then, of course, being able to speak on behalf of the foundation.
StatenIslander.Org Interviewer: Okay, and so you’ve- have you ever golf with him? I’m assuming that’s a no.
Mr. Frank Siller: No.
StatenIslander.Org Interviewer: Okay. What was it like to hear your brother and the foundation created in his honor recognized by a sitting US president?
Mr. Frank Siller: Well, it was just unbelievable. It’s something that when we started the foundation, my siblings and I, over 18 years ago, we’ve never in our wildest dreams thought that we would be doing the work that we’re doing. So, we just wanted to make sure that we honored the sacrifice that was made by Stephen and all those who perished on that day and then we decided that there are other such great acts of heroism, so we started to honor all those who die for our country and police officers, firefighters around the country who are willing to die for our communities in our country every day.
So, and to have that recognized and to be able to– [honor] Stephen’s memory, it’s beyond words. It really is beyond words. We’re very proud of the work that we’ve been doing. And we’re- it’s a team effort. It’s a family effort. It’s a team effort. Thousands and thousands of volunteers. We’re just so blessed at all the volunteers that have been able to help us succeed and all the work that we do, you can’t do without great people around you and we have that, from our staff to our volunteers. We’re really blessed.
StatenIslander.Org Interviewer: Okay, yes, that’s – That’s wonderful. What did you find most striking about President Trump, witnessing him in person as he addressed you?
Mr. Frank Siller: The knowledge of what we were doing, I mean, he really nailed exactly who we were. And this is before he was on the podium speaking and reading from his notes. We were talking and he just, you know, was saying, Frank, the work that you guys are doing in the Tunnel to Towers is just unbelievable. He was just so knowledgeable of what we’re doing, which was shocking to me, because I mean, the guy in the United States, there’s a million things going on.
StatenIslander.Org Interviewer: Yes.
Mr. Frank Siller: And I didn’t, you know, I didn’t breathe a word, really to almost anybody that I was going down there, because in my mind is that something’s gonna come up. And this is not gonna happen. Because, once again, this is the president of the United States that has so many big things that are going on in America today and– but this was important to him to recognize our organization, The tunnel to Towers, and the work that we’re doing, it’s very important to him to know that– There’s other people other than paid government, and officials out there, that are doing the work that we need to do, to take care of each other in these trying times and you know, we’re recognizing that our frontline health care workers are our heroes of today.
And of course, always our first responders and the military but you know for our foundation to make sure that we’re taking care of these families. I think he was- he wanted to recognize the work that we’re doing so, it was incredible to know, to see that it was heartfelt from him. It wasn’t like someone told him something a moment before he came in and he just blurts something out now. He has- he had complete knowledge of who we were and the work that we were doing.
StatenIslander.Org Interviewer: Okay.
Mr. Frank Siller: Not just for COVID-19, but all the work.
StatenIslander.Org Interviewer: Okay. And my next question, The Tunnel to Towers Foundation donated a million face masks, gowns, and other personal protective equipment to healthcare workers and first responders. How did your foundation to decide to create the mask and glove donation programs for hospitals and healthcare workers?
Mr. Frank Siller: It was common sense. I mean, this is what’s needed. You heard the cry out there from all these institutions, a lot of the hospitals or first responders that needed this, and in the beginning, right away we ramped up what we were doing and we just made a concerted effort to get out there and buy these supplies. And, we’ve already sent over a million pieces of personal protective equipment, but soon, we just got so many truckloads in just the last couple of days that we’re going to be able to give out approximately, it’s gonna be over 3 million pieces of personal protective equipment by the time we finish, we’re heading out to New York Health + Hospitals today to bring some more gowns and masks and shields and gloves, and more disinfectant, we’re loading the trucks as I speak to you to go out to Richmond University Medical Centers that are University hospitals, North And South and deliver- to deliver more PPE.
StatenIslander.Org Interviewer: Oh, awesome. So I guess then, part of this next question is pretty answered. What areas will the equipment go to?
Mr. Frank Siller: Well, we go all over the Tri-State area. We’ve gone to every nursing home on Staten Island, we’ve gone to private, we’ve gone to different ambulance, private and city-owned ambulances here on Staten Island. We’ve gone to volunteer firehouses here on Staten Island, every firehouse, we’ve gone to police stations, we’ve either dropped off protective gear or we’ve been serving our community with food every day too besides.
So we’re all over the Tri-State area with hundreds of locations. And we continue in that effort every day. We just got back from Atlanta, we just made a delivery to four hospitals in Atlanta. We did Boston last week, last Friday we did a delivery to different hospitals in Boston and the different police stations and firehouses in Boston too. So, we’ve been very very busy; we have Chicago, we have Detroit, we have Washington that we’re heading out to also and so now we just got this next big shipment and we’re able to now disburse to more places.
StatenIslander.Org Interviewer: Awesome. Can first responders apply to receive equipment, what is the process?
Mr. Frank Siller: Yeah, well, this is what’s happening, people go on to tunnel2towers.org, and they’re asking for help. And so but they’ve been doing that without [us] putting it out there people doing that. So they know that if possible, we will definitely do everything that we possibly can- especially in Staten Island, in the New York area, but mostly Staten Island because, you know, this is my hometown. I was born and raised, my family here in Staten Island. I go to the same church, Blessed Sacrament, for 67 years. So, you know, they say charity begins at home and we want to make sure we take care of our hometown people here.
I mean, you know, we built five different houses here on Staten Island. One for Sergeant Brendan Marrocco a specially adapted Smart Home, Army Sergeant Bryan Dilberian. Another one is a Triple Amputee, Brendan was a quadruple amputee. We did Mike Sulsona, who was a Vietnam Veteran, he’s a high double amputee. We did a Gold Star Family House for a Mecca Nelson and daughter, Mia. So that was a Gold Star.
And then a special dedication home that we built in Thanksgiving 2018 was to John Hudson Dilgen, who was a special young man that has an illness that is so rare, but he shows such incredible courage. He’s an honorary firefighter, and we treated him like that, we will take care of a firefighter that had an illness like that. And we treated him that way, with the respect that he should have had, we built a specially adapted smart home for him. So you know we take care of Staten Island first and we go from there. And we’ve been doing that for from the very beginning of our reception. The first house we ever built now Sergeant Brendan Marrocco, and we built over 100 houses, will have 250 houses delivered as mortgage-free homes by the end of this year, 250 mortgage-free homes that we built or paid off mortgages for, so we’re very proud of that.
StatenIslander.Org Interviewer: That’s wonderful. Yeah, that’s definitely awesome. Part of the fund delivers food to police stations and firehouses in New York and New Jersey. What types of food is that? And, where is it made?
Mr. Frank Siller: Well, so we got some local restaurants that we used, we knew that they could use the financial support. And normally I would be squeezing everybody to get it for free. Because you know, free is good for a not for profit, but in this instance, we wanted to make sure that we paid these restaurants because they were hurting. Having people out of work, the restaurants could, they’re not in a position to.
So we wanted to give back to a lot of restaurants that do stuff for us all year round and all the time, for many many years. And that’s what we’ve been doing so, so it’s all different types of food: the wraps, the sandwiches, these hot foods, every week we just go a different route. In the last couple of weeks, we’ve been doing pizza to firehouses and police stations all around the New York area.
So you know, we have just one instance, we have Battery Gardens, Downtown Manhattan who has given me free every year at the run towards the towers run, which is always the last Sunday in September. He has been feeding 10 to 30,000 people on the block every year. So he gives me like 20,000 portions of chicken, and so we made sure he had a place, a pizza place uptown in New York so we buy pizza from him, Harry’s Pizza. We bought pizza from them too because they’re right on Vesey Street, and they give us thousands of pizzas for free every year. So we try to give back, you know Call It A Wrap. Call It A Wrap, Canlon’s.
You know, these people have been there for us a long time. So we ordered stuff from Canlon’s, Call It A Wrap, here in Staten Island, John Jobs Catering also helped us with our golf outings over the years. And, you know, so we try to give back where we can, you know, of course, we do what we can possibly do. We’d like to help everybody but we can’t, you know, we’re limited and that’s why we ask people to go to tunnel2towers.org and donate $11 a month. I don’t think we’re asking too much, people donate $11 a month and we get enough people signing up for that so we can continue doing the work.
And we will have paid out over $5 million for our COVID response, and which is a lot of money. But you know, we’re not happy with that, I should say we’re not satisfied with that. And we want to do more. So we’re asking people donate to tunnel2towers.org, I want to also say one other thing that we’re doing is for those frontline health care workers that die in what I call a line of duty, and are married and leave young kids behind, we’re making their mortgage payments for a minimum of one year.
So there’s 25 of those that fit our criteria. So we’ve been, you know, we’re gonna be making those mortgage payments for as I said 25 frontline health care workers and, or first responders have died working, with COVID-19 patients that have died and leave behind a spouse and young kids. So that’s a lot of sadness. But how courageous are these health care workers that are putting their lives on the line? So we better take care of their families that are left behind. I think that’s a good message that we all can do as Staten Islanders. And as Americans say: “Hey, if you’re gonna go out there and risk your life, God forbid something happens, we’re gonna take care of your family that’s left behind.” And that’s what we’re doing at the time to Tunnel to Towers Foundation.
StatenIslander.Org Interviewer: Okay, that’s definitely good. And you said that you donated like 30,000 pounds, like you guys donated like a lot of food to the firehouses, is that for the firehouses, or the firehouses distribute it to the communities or?
Mr. Frank Siller: No, no, no. We just go to firehoues, police stations, EMS stations, hospitals, we go to hospitals.
StatenIslander.Org Interviewer: Okay.
Mr. Frank Siller: We make deliveries every day, we make about 20 to 25 deliveries every day.
StatenIslander.Org Interviewer: Oh, cool.
Mr. Frank Siller: Well, Scott is a great American. He loves America and he loves people who are first responders and frontline health care workers. So we were talking because he’s been part of our foundation right from the beginning. He’s been doing paintings and donating paintings to us for many years and he’s helped raise a lot of money.
And we were talking about doing something special. He says you know what? I think I’m gonna do this painting, I said: “Well, why don’t you do it, and then we’ll raise some money off of it?” So Scott being Scott, has come up with this unbelievable. It’s five feet by six, six by five feet. It’s beautiful. It’s called Sunrise. The sun is coming up they’re taking like the American flag like they do in Iwo Jima but it’s with one military, a police officer, a firefighter, a nurse, and an EMS worker, and they’re taking this flag and putting it in the ground there in this shoving the COVID-19, you know virus…
They’re shoving it into the ground and defeating it, and putting this flag up and they’re showing that together they’re gonna defeat this invisible enemy and they have a beautiful, with the jets up in the sky and it’s just a magnificent piece and great, if you people want to purchase it, it’s $100 and you can get a beautiful print of this that Scott did. You know it’s just, he considers it his greatest work of art that he’s ever done and he’s done unbelievably beautiful art. And so but I have to agree with him. It’s just so spectacular.
StatenIslander.Org Interviewer: Okay, and so, like he approached you basically, was the image-
Mr. Frank Siller: We were talking, and I talk to Scott all the time so he said: “What are we gonna do?” That’s, you know what I mean, that’s Scott. He wanted to make sure we have… I said Scott, I’ll tell you what we’re doing but we need help. He came up with this idea, yes.
StatenIslander.Org Interviewer: Was the image itself a surprise? Or did Scott tell you what it was gonna be?
Mr. Frank Siller: No, Scott didn’t tell me anything, he wanted it to all be a surprise. It all from him and I wanted to know, so I was bothering him, but he wouldn’t let out about what it was, and I’m glad he didn’t because when he unveiled it, I saw it, I said, “Oh my goodness Scott!” It was very emotional to be quite frank with you because I know the effort that is being made.
Listen, I come from a family of people who serve and let it be first responders, or nurses, my mother was a nurse. I have three sisters and a brother who are nurses. I have nephews and nieces that are nurses, I have two sisters-in-law that are nurses. My daughter in law, who was the mother of three of my grandchildren, is a nurse that works in the NICU Center in Cornell, so she’s right on the front line of the COVID-19 battle every day, every day that she works. So and as all of them are, they’re putting their lives at risk every day that they go in there.
So we know all about what’s going on right from the beginning, because we heard it and live with our families that you know, talk to, to those who are going to these dangerous situations every day. So we’re proud of the effort that these great frontline healthcare workers and first responders are doing and we’re gonna make sure we take care of Tunnel to Towers Foundation, but we need everybody’s help, just you know buy a print or go to tunnel2towers.org and sign up for $11 a month.
StatenIslander.Org Interviewer: So COVID-19 is a deadly and serious matter. How do you feel about some media outlets trying to politicize it?
Mr. Frank Siller:Well, I’m not going to get political,not in the least bit because we’re an apolitical foundation. And we just want to make sure we take care of those who, who are risking their lives every day. I’m not, definitely not going to touch that question in as what-what stations are saying what? Because I don’t agree with a lot of things. And I agree with a lot of things. So I’m only one person with my own opinion and I’m not going to give it other than we’re going to make sure we take care. I’m not going to get political. I just want to do the right thing and take care of those who willing to die for you and me.
StatenIslander.Org Interviewer: Scott LoBaido was sincere in his support for America and our way of life. When did you first become aware of his work both performance art and paintings and murals?
Mr. Frank Siller: Like I said, you know, many, many years ago, Scott was doing…
I met Scott because if anybody loves America, you’re going to meet Scott because he’s doing something about America for a long time. So I met him many, many years ago. I can’t say how long ago, but at least, I’m going to say at least 15 years ago, maybe even longer. And, we’ve been working together ever since. He’s a great supporter of the Tunnel to Towers Foundation. He has donated his time and energy and talent and resources for many, many years and I can’t be more grateful and appreciative what Scott has done for the Tunnel2Towers Foundation and continues to do.
StatenIslander.Org Interviewer: And now, what were some- did you actually work with Scott on other projects before? Like, if so, what were they?
Mr. Frank Siller: Absolutely, absolutely. He’s done a lot of paintings. He does speed painting for us at a lot of our functions let it be be a golf outing or a gala, or dinner, and you know, we’ve been raising, helps raise a lot of money. So yes, I’ve been working with Scott for a long time, we use his prints all the time, different prints that he’s done with the American flag, we give out to a lot of our sponsors, especially at our golf outing on Veterans Day, here on Staten Island every year. We’ve been doing it for 12 years of Veterans Day a golf outing when we have like 700 people back or 800 people back at the Hilton. Between Hilton LiGreci’s has always been great supporters of our foundation. So we’ve been working with Scott for a long time.
Mr. Frank Siller: You got about one more minute because I’ve got another something else, I have to end the meeting in a few minutes.
StatenIslander.Org Interviewer: Okay. So how is the COVID-19 crisis like 911 and how is it different?
Mr. Frank Siller: Well, it’s similar in that it is… It’s such a loss of life. It’s similar in that I see a lot of goodness, and people come together. Maybe not as much as I saw during 911. But I do see because I deal with good people, I deal with people who want to do good all the time. So the people I’m dealing with, I see the goodness of America at all times. So, the feeling after 911 when 911 happened, the feeling afterwards, all of America came together for a pretty decent long period of time. This is people coming together to make sure you take care of each other. But it’s, this is definitely politicized more now than then 911 was for sure. Once again, we don’t get into the politics here at the foundation. We just want to make sure we do good and take care of those who risk their lives every day for us.
But I think the greatest thing that I see between 911 and this is that there are a lot of people who want to help each other. And, and I saw that after 911 and I see it now. It’s, we were attacked on our soil, it’s different, you know, somebody’s flying the plane into the towers, or Shanksville, or the Pentagon. And this is an invisible enemy. So this is different. This is something that wasn’t done to us in many ways. It was, but you know, I won’t get into that. But something that wasn’t. It’s just something that happened. And the other thing is somebody was just trying to kill us. So there is a difference. Because they want to kill us because of our way of life. Our way of life is the best way of life. Being an American is the proudest thing, that I could possibly say that outside of being my, my family that I have, my God, my country, you know, it is just being American. And it’s when somebody attacked us on 911. They just attacked all of America. And that’s what was felt, this year is different than in that once again, it’s an invisible enemy and it might be around just as long.
I don’t know, I can’t look into a crystal ball. But I know we’ll come through it just like we did on 911. Tunnel2Towers Foundation was born from the sacrifice of my brother and so many. And we wanted to take- that loss, that terrible loss, that heartache that that happened to us personally and turn it into goodness. And that’s what we’ve been doing ever since. And we’re going to continue doing that, you know, through this COVID-19 we want to take all these acts of heroism, all these beautiful people who’ve gone to work every day all across our country, not here just on Staten Island, not just here in the tri-state around. All over our country. And we want to recognize, what they’re doing. And that’s what the foundation is all about. Let’s take the goodness out of what people are doing. Let’s take the goodness of America and take care of the greatness of America and the greatness of America, those who want to die for you and me, either so and that’s what we continue to do and will continue to do forever.
StatenIslander.Org Interviewer: Okay. And on 911, doctors and nurses and EMTs treated many people and during this crisis, they’re recognized as heroes. Do you think they’re often overlooked?
Mr. Frank Siller: Absolutely. They’ve always been overload. It’s not easy being a doctor or a nurse, or whatever. They’re dealing with any type of dangerous type of illnesses from all over, but they’ll never be looked at the same again, and again, rightfully so. And let me tell you, there might be one of the common denominators. You know, firefighters were always respected in some slots and police officers, but after 911, forget it. It was a newfound understanding of the bravery of these people. And definitely this newfound understanding of the bravery, bravery of our frontline healthcare workers. Now. I gotta go.
StatenIslander.Org Interviewer: Okay. Is it okay, if I send you an email with a few more questions that I had, or should I send them to the gentleman I spoke to yesterday?
Mr. Frank Siller: That is Trevor and I get to mention, I have a meeting in three minutes, I gotta prepare.
You’ve been wonderful. You’ve asked great questions. How long you’ve been doing this?
StatenIslander.Org Interviewer: A couple of years now. And actually, these questions were formulated by my partner, who I had told Trevor would also be at the meeting if we were physically present. But yeah, they were mostly formulated by him. And he’s been doing interviewing for a very long time. So-
Mr. Frank Siller: You’re honest too, I like the honesty.
StatenIslander.Org Interviewer: And I definitely appreciate your taking the time to speak with us. It was great. Thank you so very much.
Mr. Frank Siller: You have a blessed day.
StatenIslander.Org Interviewer: You also. Bye-bye.
The remainder of the questions were answered in writing by Mr. Siller.
How did the Foundation first come to be, after the sacrifice Stephen made for his city and country?
After my brother gave up his life on September 11, we knew right away we needed to do something to honor him. We came up with the idea for the Foundation, all of my siblings sitting around the kitchen table in the days after we lost him. A friend of Stephen’s suggested retracing his final footsteps from Brooklyn through the Battery Tunnel to Manhattan in his memory.
Where did the name [of the Foundation[ come from?
Our name came from the heroic actions of my brother on September 11, 2001. Stephen, who was assigned to Brooklyn’s Squad 1, had just finished his shift and was on his way to play golf with me and the rest of his brothers when he got word over his scanner of a plane hitting the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Upon hearing the news, Stephen called his wife Sally and asked her to tell us he would catch up later. He returned to Squad 1 to get his gear.
Stephen drove his truck to the entrance of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, but it had already been closed for security purposes. Determined to carry out his duty, he strapped 60 lbs. of gear to his back, and raced on foot through the tunnel to the Twin Towers, where he gave up his life while saving others.
Because he ran through the Tunnel to the Towers – and lost his life – that is why we are the Tunnel to Towers Foundation.
What are the primary goals of the Foundation?
The Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation honors the sacrifice of FDNY firefighter Stephen Siller, who laid down his life to save others on September 11, 2001. We also honor our military and first responders who continue to make the supreme sacrifice of life and limb for our country.
How does it make you feel knowing you are honoring the legacy and heart of your brother, Stephen Siller, by the work your foundation does?
I believe he is looking down on us and all the good that we do, he’s smiling and laughing – saying look at all the work I’m making you do!
Your charity has a four-star rating from Charity Navigator. What does this mean to you?
The Foundation is built on trust and transparency. When people donate to Tunnel to Towers – we want them to know they can trust us to do the right thing with their donations. To earn a four-star ranking, for so many years in a row, is a point of pride for the Foundation. That when you donate a dollar to us – we make sure that dollar does the most good that it can do.
In what ways do the smart homes that the Foundation builds help Wounded Veterans?
These homes are built to help these heroes on the day they move in – and for the rest of their lives. These are ‘forever homes.’ We try to anticipate not just what they are going to need today but for the rest of their lives. That includes technology we can upgrade, and a layout that works for them in a wheelchair or their prosthetics, and extra rooms in case they have more kids!
How did it feel the first time a Veteran received a home from T2T? How have recipients usually reacted?
It was incredible – the first home recipient was Army Specialist Brendan Marrocco, the first service member to survive after losing all four limbs in combat in Iraq. He was from Staten Island, right in our back yard. I knew we had to build him a home so he could get back some of his independence that he lost when he was protecting us overseas. When we saw the difference it made for him – we knew the Foundation had a new mission to help build these homes around the country.
How are recipients of help selected?
There is an application process for our smart home recipients, you can find out the details online at tunnel2towers.org.
How many families has the Fallen First Responder Program helped so far?
The Foundation has committed more than $250 million in support of our nation’s greatest heroes and their families. By the end of 2020, the Foundation will have delivered 250 mortgage-free homes across all three of our programs.
I remember there was a Staten Island child that a smart home was built for by T2T. What were the circumstances of this?
John Hudson Dilgen is an amazing kid who has defied the odds here on Staten Island. The family came to us to help install a special tub which would help with his Epidermolysis Bullosa, or EB. The home wasn’t accessible – it was an older home with stairs everywhere – so we decided to help him and his family and build him a new home – to make life easier for him, his siblings, and his parents. We dedicated the home right before Thanksgiving 2018.
While T2T is non religiously affiliated, it’s clear that personal faith was instrumental in its development.
“While we have time, let us do good,’ the quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, are the driving force behind the Tunnel to Towers Foundation – and motivate me and my siblings every day to be a force for good.
The life and legacy of St. Francis of Assisi, guided your family, and your brother Stephen, quite a bit. Your web site has the phrase “while we have time, let us do good.” What other ways do you feel that this Saint’s Life affected your brother, yourself, and your family?
That prayer is especially appropriate because the Foundation’s work brings hope to those in despair. Families of fallen first responders who are afraid they may lose their home are given peace of mind with a mortgage payoff. Gold Star widows who never thought they would be able to afford their own home are given mortgage free homes. The Smart Home program gives back independence to these injured heroes – so they can do things on their own they thought they wouldn’t be able to do again.
What other guiding words or ideas of St. Francis did you, and your other siblings, including Stephen, hold dear?
Remember that when you leave this earth, You can take with you nothing that you have received. Only what you have given. A full heart, Enriched by honest service, Love, Sacrifice, And courage.
What qualities did your parents instill in Stephen, yourself, and your other siblings?
George and Mae Siller, were devout Catholics who were both a part of the Third Order of St. Francis. They were such giving people. My parents had seven kids. We were very poor, but we were never too poor to do something for our neighbors. Our parents instilled in us the power of prayer and good deeds and love – that enabled my brother to make that ultimate sacrifice.
What is some practical advice you might have for Americans seeking to do good for their community, coming from a background of compassion and having led the Foundation for so many years?
Be the spark. Be the spark that is a light in the darkness. Everything starts with passion. Everyone told me and our siblings we were crazy to try and close a tunnel in New York for our event. Together we did it, and it has become one of the best events in the country.
As lay members of the Franciscan Friars, how were your parents involved in these activities? How greatly did it shape you and your siblings’ upbringing?
We were brought up in a spiritual family?
Both my Mother and Father were members of the Third Order. They attended meetings, visited the sick, read to them, and prayed with them. This made a huge impact on my me and my siblings in how we lived our lives and treated others.
The Life and Legacy of Stephen Siller
I read that you and your siblings raised Stephen after your parents passed. For those that knew him, what do they remember Stephen to be like?
He was like Superman to us – resilient. We joke that it took six siblings to put on that first Tunnel to Towers run, and Stephen could have done it all on his own.
Where were you going to meet up to play golf on September 11th? Was Stephen an avid golfer?
Stephen was my golfing partner – we used to get up before the sun play 18 holes in two hours and still have a full day ahead of us.
What was the last conversation that you had with Stephen?
The day before 9/11 Stephen and I had lunch together. We spoke about our families and business, and looked forward to our next day of golf. The last words I said to Stephen were “See you tomorrow.”
Was his running through the tunnel with his gear something you were shocked to hear about?
No, I know my brother and nothing was going to stop him from getting to ground zero to meet up with his fellow firefighters and save lives.
Was there anything in your brother’s life that might have made you think he’d end up being remembered as someone who gave his all for others?
Stephen was an extraordinary human being. He was always doing things for other people. He died the way he lived.
Was Brooklyn’s Squad one the first firehouse Stephen had been assigned to?
No. At that time, probees had to go to a new firehouse each year. Stephen had worked in approx. 5 different firehouses. He started at 153, then worked at 10&10 by ground zero. He would often ride his bike to the Staten Island Ferry to get to and from the firehouse.
What made Stephen choose to become a firefighter? Did you have other firefighters or police officers in your family?
We had uncles who were first responders. Stephen always wanted to be a firefighter, it was in his blood.
What do you think Stephen’s life, and the incredible sacrifice he was willing to make, should teach young Americans?
That we should be willing to sacrifice for others. Not everyone needs to be a first responder to live a life of sacrifice and goodness. What he did for our immediate family was incredible, the way he lived, and the example he set for us. You don’t know when you are going to be called upon. Just continue to do small acts of kindness throughout your life and help others.
Liberty National Golf Classic
We’ve attended the Liberty National Golf Classic Memorial Outing almost every year that it’s been held, with the exception of 2019. What was the first year that this event was held?
Each spring since 2015, the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation has held its annual Golf Classic.
How did Liberty National come to be the home of the T2T Golf Classic?
We have many golf outings. We host a large outing on Staten Island at several courses; Richmond County, Silver Lake, Latourette, and South Shore. The Honorable Rudy Giuliani has been part of our foundation from the very beginning. He wanted to host and sponsor a golf outing for us and he belonged to Liberty National.
Each year, the event is hosted by The Honorable Rudolph Giuliani. The former New York City mayor, who also serves as chairman of the annual Tunnel to Towers 5K Run & Walk NYC, has been a stalwart support of the Foundation since its inception.
The NYPD Pipes and Drums has also always been there.
We are blessed to have incredible support from the NYPD since the starting days of the Foundation.
Downtown Manhattan forms the backdrop on this day. Do you feel in that way Liberty National is the most fitting place for the Golf Classic?
Liberty National has been an incredible location for the event and an amazing partner over the years, looking out onto lower Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty is an inspiring view every time I see it.
Mr. Fireman, and Liberty National’s hospitality toward T2T is incredible. How does it feel to be among so many friends and people who support your Foundation’s efforts each year?
The Foundation has made so many accomplishments over the years thanks to the hard work of our friends, supporters, and volunteers. We see so many familiar faces at our events year after year – they are like an extended family.
Siller Tunnel to Towers Run & Walk
Did you ever think this event would mushroom into something so big, with so many participants?
The event in NYC is the cornerstone of the Foundation. It is a celebration of my brother and a sign of how resilient New York City is. When the race started in 2002, I always hoped it would become something special. Now it is an event that brings together people from around the world – to honor not only my brother, but all of the lives lost that day and the lives lost since then in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Originally, your family had planned a Clove Lakes park run or walk. From a local event to a worldwide phenomenon, the walk is now world-famous. What would you want people mostly unfamiliar with Stephen, NYC, and maybe even 9-11, possibly being too young to even have been alive, know about the events of 911 and why the walk exists?
Kids graduating High School this year many of them were born after the 9/11 attacks. As we get further and further away from the events of September 11, 2001, it is important to teach them about not only what happened, but the countless and anonymous acts of compassion and heroism that happened that day. It was the worst of humanity bringing out the best of humanity. My brother’s story is just one of those stories – it is bigger than all of us. Life goes on, and the good that can come out of it – helps carry us forward in our lives.
Staten Islander News Service would like to thank Mr. Frank Siller for his time and wise words. It is our hope that readers will stop for a moment on reflect on everything that’s been said here. It is rather significant.