MORRISTOWN, N.J. — Rep. Mikie Sherrill looked out over the crowd and motioned to the children playing in inflatable bounce houses on the edge of a barbecue honoring Tunnel to Towers, a 9/11-inspired nonprofit that provides homes to wounded veterans and first responders.
“I’ve been reminded that for 20 years, they haven’t lived in the shadow of terrorism because of all the sacrifices that so many people have made,” the New Jersey Democrat said as the anniversary approached. “It’s really hard to believe it’s been 20 years since that fateful Tuesday morning in September that changed our world forever and cost us so many loved ones.”
Children who attended the event in this historic New Jersey town weren’t alive in 2001, but reminders of the tragic day were all around them. Firefighters and police donned memorial T-shirts and spoke with reverence about the brethren they lost at ground zero and the Pentagon and the brave passengers on the hijacked flight downed in Pennsylvania.
First responders paraded around the village green ahead of the cookout to raise awareness and money for Tunnel to Towers, a charity that looks back to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and uses the spirit of the day to uplift first responders who need a helping hand — and will for years to come.
Since its founding in 2001, Tunnel to Towers has provided or will deliver 450 homes to wounded military members and first responders who need “smart” features such as adjustable sinks and automatic doors. It also provides mortgage-free homes to families who have lost someone in war or the line of duty.
Its CEO is Frank Siller, the elder brother of Stephen Siller, a New York City firefighter who ran through a tunnel from Brooklyn to Manhattan to help on Sept. 11 and died at ground zero.
Frank Siller is walking 525 miles from Washington to New York as part of a “Never Forget” project to raise awareness of the foundation and the 20th anniversary of the attacks. He will walk 12 miles “the wrong way” so he can meet police and firefighters in Arlington, Virginia, who responded to the attack on the Pentagon. On Saturday, he will finish his walk by retracing his brother’s steps and visiting a firehouse near ground zero.
Mr. Siller‘s stop last weekend in Morristown, where George Washington maintained a headquarters during the American Revolution, attracted hundreds of first responders and families, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and the congresswoman.
The Sept. 11 attacks killed 749 New Jersey residents, including 90 from the 11th Congressional District and 64 from Morris County, “where we stand today,” Ms. Sherrill said.
“Their presence is felt in our homes, in our offices and in our towns,” she said. “Frank, I want to say thank you for the incredible walk you leave that helps keep the memory alive for so many.”
‘Didn’t surprise any of us’
As a young man, Stephen Siller attended a Meat Loaf concert and decided to jump onto the stage. Nobody stopped him, so he sang a song with the star and then dived off the stage.
In other words, he was fearless.
“He had courage that was beyond,” Frank Siller told The Washington Times. “So when I found out how he got [to ground zero], it just didn’t surprise any of us.”
On the day of the attacks, Frank Siller was waiting in his kitchen with his other brothers, Russ and George, for a family golf outing. Stephen didn’t show up.
Just off his shift, Stephen heard about the plane crash at the World Trade Center, went back to his station to get his gear and came to a “screeching halt” at the backed-up Hugh L. Carey Tunnel, formerly the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. He got out of his car and ran through the tunnel to get to the towers in lower Manhattan.
Frank Siller said the foundation’s founders started right away in 2001. Their first event was around the first anniversary of the attacks — a run through the tunnel that has become an annual staple.
The run was canceled last year because of COVID-19 restrictions, but 30,000 to 40,000 people are expected to participate this year, on the last Sunday in September.
“Many of them, police officers and firefighters, run in full gear,” Mr. Siller said.
Mr. Giuliani, who posed for photos with Mr. Siller and others in Morristown, said he opposed Frank‘s push for the inaugural run because he didn’t want to close a major tunnel.
“He talked me into it,” Mr. Giuliani said.
‘The most severe’
The Tunnel to Towers Foundation in April gave a smart home to Army Spc. Johnathon Mullen, his wife, Sarah, and their two children in Lake Elmo, Minnesota.
In 2011, Spc. Mullen was on foot patrol in Kandahar, Afghanistan, when his platoon came under fire. He stepped on an improvised explosive device, or IED, causing him to lose both legs below the knee. His right arm was shattered, and he suffered nerve damage that left him with partial function in his right hand.
The Home Depot Foundation and Tunnel to Towers customized the one-level home with extra-wide halls and doorways, plus lights, a thermostat and a security system that are all operated by a touchscreen or smartphone. The kitchen has pull-down shelving and a mechanical stove that moves up and down to wheelchair height.
The smart home is emblematic of those the foundation has built across America to fit the needs of catastrophically wounded veterans and first responders.
“Double, triple, quadruple amputees, paraplegic, quadriplegic, traumatic brain injury where they can’t function and are in a wheelchair, so the most severe,” Mr. Siller said of those they assist.
The foundation says 93% of donated dollars go directly to programs. The rest is devoted to fundraising and administrative costs.
537 miles and plenty of pancakes
The main objective of Mr. Siller‘s “Never Forget” walk was to go to the three sites — the Pentagon, Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and ground zero — where people were killed on Sept. 11.
President Biden plans to visit all three sites on Saturday.
“It has been an unbelievable journey to be amongst people,” Mr. Siller said. “I go through these small towns, and everybody’s waving the flags, yelling out of the car, ‘Never forget.’ It’s just so uplifting. It really hasn’t been difficult.”
An easygoing but dynamic speaker, Mr. Siller detailed his routine for the Morristown crowd. He sets out at about 6:30 a.m. and puts in 8 or 9 miles before he posts up for breakfast.
“So they have pancakes — not just pancakes: blueberry pancakes, banana pancakes, it could be waffles, of course, scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, you name it. These are New York City firefighters who are cooking for me, so you know I’m well taken care of,” he said. “I’m the only guy who is going to walk 537 miles and put weight on.”
He puts in several more miles — all told, about 15 per day — before staying in a hotel overnight. He has eight pairs of sneakers that he uses in a rotation.
While men in red T-shirts worked long grills and families sat under tents to protect them from light rain last weekend, Mr. Siller urged the Morristown crowd to visit Shanksville, where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed after passengers struggled for control of the plane against terrorist hijackers. He described an emotional scene along his journey when he knelt to pray with 40 New York City firefighters at the boulder marking the crash site.
“Our emotions were pouring out of us because, what were we thinking about?” Mr. Siller said. “I’m thinking all those lives that were lost at the Pentagon, I’m thinking of my brother running through that tunnel. I’m thinking of all the firefighters that ran up those stairs, I’m thinking of the police officers that were there on 9/11 ready to give their lives.
“I’m thinking of 2,977 souls that gave their lives and their lives were taken that day, and I’m thinking of the 7,072 men and women that have given their lives for our country ever since,” he said. “And it is pouring out of me, and it should pour out of every American, and that’s why we should never forget.”