On Sept. 11, 2001, firefighter Stephen Siller raced through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel with 60 pounds of gear on his back to get to the Twin Towers and help save others. Sadly, Siller did not survive 9/11 and left behind his wife and five children, including Olivia Siller ’18, now a communication major at Manhattan. Olivia and her family honor Siller’s memory through the ongoing work of The Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation.
“My Dad’s best friend [William Codd] was thinking of ideas of how to start a foundation that my Dad would love — something that would not only honor him but every fireman and first responder,” Olivia says.
The foundation was established in late 2001 and started initially as a yearly run in New York City to trace Stephen’s last steps. The mission of the foundation is to honor Siller’s sacrifice, as well as the military and first responders who make the ultimate sacrifice of life and limb for the U.S. There were 5,000 participants in the first Tunnel to Towers 5K Run and Walk in New York City, and in 2014, the number increased to more than 30,000 (including 150 firefighters from London who run in full gear). Manhattan College alumnus Hon. Rudolph W. Giuliani ’65, former mayor of New York City, is chairman of the annual run.
Olivia was just five years old when she lost her father, while Stephen was orphaned at a young age. The youngest of seven children, he was raised by his older siblings, who all resided or moved back to Staten Island after 9/11 to help Olivia’s mother and siblings. Having lost 12 members including Stephen on 9/11, Squad 1 and the greater FDNY has also remained a constant part of the Siller family.
“We still keep in touch with a lot of the wives and the fire department really takes care of you. When they say it’s a family, it’s truly a family,” Olivia adds.
Leaving Staten Island for Riverdale
Olivia started at Manhattan College in late August 2014, a few weeks before the 13th anniversary of 9/11. She was nervous to leave her support network and extended family in Staten Island but eager to start the next chapter.
On Sept. 11, 2014, Olivia decided to stay in Riverdale after spending every prior 9/11 anniversary with her family.
“I walked outside and there were all the flags on the Quad, and I [felt] like I am home here — this is safe enough for me. My friends really took care of me and my boyfriend came to visit me,” Olivia adds. “I just knew I was at such a good place, that if I needed anything, I was surrounded by people.”
A week after the anniversary, Olivia met Kathy Robertson Cunningham at Manhattan, mother of women’s lacrosse midfielder Kaitlyn Cunningham ’16. Kathy is the organizer of Team Shamrock, one of the largest fundraising teams for the Tunnel to Towers race, organized in honor of her brother who passed away on 9/11. Visiting campus to spread the word about the foundation and race’s mission, Kathy spoke to the women’s lacrosse team on the importance of staying active in the community and supporting the people who lost family members on 9/11.
Although they had just met, Olivia and the team had an immediate connection.
“I sat there chatting [and] crying with these girls and thinking, ‘this is awesome’,” Olivia remembers.
The entire lacrosse team ended up participating in the 2014 race. It’s experiences like these that helped shape Olivia’s freshman year and encourage her to continue to spread the mission of the foundation.
Tunnel to Towers Today
After more than a decade, The Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation has grown immensely to host nine races a year around the country, and they encourage fire departments to register as members of a Brother for Brother team. Proceeds from the Brother for Brother teams benefit burn centers and support injured firefighters and through the Building for America’s Bravest program (BFAB), which builds custom designed, specially adapted homes for catastrophically injured American service members.
Last winter, the foundation also assisted in raising more than $1 million to pay the mortgages and home renovations of the two widows of murdered NYPD officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu. In a matter of 10 days, the foundation, along with Olivia, spread the news about the donation opportunity through word-of-mouth, social media and various news networks, and raised more than $1 million for the widows. On Sept. 2, the Foundation also had an unveiling for home renovations made for Detective Liu’s widow.
In 2013, the foundation designed the 9/11 Never Forget Mobile Exhibit as a tool to educate America’s youth on the historical events of 9/11. The 53-foot tractor-trailer, which expands into a 1,000-square-foot exhibit, has traveled from Phoenix, Ariz., to Tampa, Fla., to remind and teach others about that tragic day.
“Seeing all of the great things happening today due to devoted volunteers and supporters, we could not be more pleased with the work we are doing,” says Frank Siller, uncle of Olivia and chairman and CEO of the Foundation. “It gives me great joy to watch Stephen's kids and their involvement in the Foundation and run. Olivia has been one of our guiding lights and from the very beginning has been wise beyond her years. She has had so many unbelievable suggestions on how to improve all we do.”
The 2015 race in New York City is Sept. 27, 2015. Visit the website to learn more and register.