From Heartbreak to Hope, Honoring Those Who Protect Us
By Kellie Speed
When New York City Firefighter Stephen Siller was killed during the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11, he could never have imagined the tremendous legacy his family would create in his memory.
The Tunnel to Towers Foundation was born as a result of that tragic day to honor and remember Stephen’s heroism as he ran through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel with 60 lbs. of gear on his back to the South Tower to serve in the rescue efforts. The foundation honors America’s greatest heroes and their families.
We caught up with the Tunnel to Towers Foundation Chairman and CEO Frank Siller to discuss the incredible work the foundation continues to do in the loving memory of his little brother.
Why was it so important for you personally to create a program to help our wounded warriors?
We know we went to war because of what happened on September 11, 2001, and my brother was a New York City firefighter who died that day. I fully appreciated that we didn’t want this to happen again on our soil, and we went into Iraq, Afghanistan and other places to ensure that it did not happen again. While doing so, many men and women sacrificed tremendously for our country to protect us here in America.
The first ever quadruple amputee to survive any war was years after 9/11; to be precise, it was in 2009 when SGT Brendan Marrocco lost all four limbs for our country. I went down with a group from the Tunnel to Towers Foundation. I saw the sacrifice Marrocco made for us as a country and those 9/11 families who lost somebody — that’s when we decided to start building mortgage-free smart homes for our country’s most catastrophically injured service members. Not just injured, but catastrophically injured — those who have given up two, three or four limbs, or those who are quadriplegic, paraplegic or suffered a traumatic brain injury where they can hardly function, and other injuries along those lines. We want to give back some of the independence they gave away protecting us.
Can you tell us about the smart home program?
We have built over 100 smart homes across the country, but we have 73 new names that we just added for this coming year or two. It will be close to 200 by the time we are done in two years, but there are still more out there. Many have waited for years because I didn’t have the funds, resources or ability to build all these homes at once. Each home is a tremendous expense. Just to buy the land for these great heroes is $200 to $300 thousand. Then, we are into the construction side for $600 to $700 thousand.
The recipients need the space inside their homes to maneuver comfortably, and that’s the idea behind it all to give them back some of the comfort and independence that was taken away from them because they were protecting us. By no means is our work done. I don’t believe it will ever be done.
We have men and women who are still protecting us, and Gold Star families, those who have lost a loved one protecting our country. If they have young families left behind, if they don’t have a house, we build them a house; and if they do have a house, we pay off their mortgage. It’s a promise we made at the Tunnel to Towers Foundation that when their loved ones give them a kiss goodbye and they don’t come home, we are going to be there for the families because they gave their life for our country, so we have got to take care of them. That’s the promise the Tunnel to Towers Foundation has made.
How did it feel when you were able to hand over the keys to the first home recipient, Army SGT Brendan Marrocco?
It was a feeling that was inexplicable. It’s an emotion; sad to say that a lot of people don’t have that experience. They have great joy in their lives, and everybody should, but this is different. This is a blessing that we are able to give to a patriot who was willing to give their body for our country.
We delivered over 200 mortgage-free homes in 2021 and again in 2022, and the pace is picking up. We have got to do more and more every year. We do it for fallen first responders as well. If you die in the line of duty, we are going to pay off your mortgage, so we have our work cut out for us. I know there is no other foundation in America that has taken on this responsibility, and we are proud that we are. It’s more than just giving a mortgage-free house away; it’s creating a relationship with these beautiful families.
Did you ever envision Tunnel to Towers becoming what it is today?
No, this foundation was started in honor of my youngest brother Stephen. Stephen was the youngest of seven, so the six remaining siblings wanted to honor what he did and, for that matter, what all first responders did on 9/11. Stephen is only symbolic of the heroism demonstrated that day, and we want to make sure we never forget. That is our first obligation to make sure we never forget.
The beautiful thing about the Tunnel to Towers run that we have every year on the last Sunday in September is that we carry pictures of all 7,072 men and women who have given their lives for our country since 9/11. I think the legacy of my brother and the legacy of the foundation is the good work we are doing for all of these families.
What do you have planned for 2023?
We are going to try to eradicate homelessness amongst our veterans. The numbers I have given you are just for smart homes, Gold Star and fallen first responders. The foundation will have close to 1,000 homeless vets off the street in 2022, and I don’t talk about it too much. I want people to start realizing that we deliver. When we say we are going to do something, we deliver. When people donate $11 a month, and that’s what we ask Americans to do, they know where their money is going.
When you asked about plans for 2023, I am going to say that among smart homes, Gold Star, fallen first responders and catastrophically injured, we will do about 250 mortgage-free homes. Then for our homeless veterans, we will have 1,500 to 2,500 veterans off the streets in 2023. The beautiful thing is we are building these comfort homes for these homeless veterans, and then we are going to give them comprehensive services to be able to stay in the homes. We have a tremendous program we have rolled out that we are so proud of where we are doing all these things.
For more information about the Tunnel to Towers Foundation, visit t2t.org.