The ‘Never Forget Walk’: Honoring my brother’s final journey – and all our fallen heroes
Along the 500-mile trek from the Pentagon to Shanksville to New York City, I share Stephen’s story and the Tunnel to Towers message
By Frank Siller
On September 11, 2001, 20 years ago this year, our great nation lost hundreds of heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice to save the lives of others. When it was all over, 2,977 Americans had died. The world changed that day, not only for the families, children and loved ones left behind, but also for every American.
As the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, we must come together to honor the lives we lost and highlight all of the brave men and women in uniform who continue to risk life and limb running toward danger. Together, we’ll ensure America never forgets our heroes, their sacrifices and their loved ones.
My brother, my mission
I made “Never Forget” my mission after I lost my brother, Stephen Siller, an FDNY firefighter, on 9/11.
That morning, Stephen was off duty and was scheduled to play golf with myself and our siblings. Once the call came in that there had been an attack, Stephen knew he had to help and sprang into action.
With traffic backed up at the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, Stephen donned his 60 lb. gear and started walking toward the World Trade Center. Like the true hero he was, Stephen was determined to fulfill his duty and protect his neighbors in danger.
We lost Stephen in the collapse of the South Tower at 9:59 a.m.
Doing good for others
As we all know, Stephen’s story is not a unique one for 9/11. We lost hundreds of first responders that day, and we continue to lose first responders who survived but have been plagued by chronic illnesses related to their service on 9/11. It’s Stephen and his fellow selfless heroes who inspired my family to create the Tunnel to Towers Foundation in December 2001. We felt called to uphold Stephen’s legacy of living life to the fullest and doing good for others.
Since its inception, the Foundation has raised over $250 million in support of our nation’s heroes and their families. By the end of 2021, we will have provided 450 mortgage-free homes and held over 70 events that inspired over 500,000 participants. I’m proud of how far we’ve come in the last 20 years, and I’m hopeful we can help every family that’s eligible for our programs. The work we do helps families in their darkest hours focus on what’s truly important – caring for each other and saying goodbye to their loved one. We’re grateful we get the opportunity to thank these families who have given our country so much.
A milestone anniversary prompts a monumental trek
For the 20th anniversary of 9/11, I wanted to do something special that would honor the resilience of the heroes we lost that day, thank the fallen first responders and service members since 9/11 and show the world that we will Never Forget them. I also wanted to be challenged and do something that had never been done before. That’s how I came up with the idea for this walk. I wanted to visit the three sites of that tragic day and pay my respects to the heroes we lost there while also sharing this milestone anniversary with their loved ones left behind.
So, I decided I had to make the 500+-mile trek from the Pentagon to Shanksville to New York City, ending at One World Trade Center. I also wanted to follow in my brother's footsteps through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel in firefighter gear to honor him and experience even a shred of what he went through on that fateful day 20 years ago.
This all came together in the Never Forget Walk.
Once we decided it was settled, I started working with a trainer to get myself in the best shape possible to ensure I would be able to see this journey to its end.
A journey for all
As I conceptualized this walk, I knew I didn’t want to do this journey alone. This journey is called the Never Forget Walk for a reason. I wanted to stop in a handful of cities on the route to host parades and barbecues open to the public to share our foundation’s message and Stephen’s story.
In addition to our stops along the way, I had the honor of being joined by catastrophically injured veterans, Gold Star families, families of fallen first responders, and local first responders honoring their service. In Winchester, Virginia, we were joined by Thomas Frazier, father of fallen Artesia Police Department Corporal Thomas Frazier, and London Brown, who lost her fiancé, Logan Young, a firefighter and Senior Airman in the U.S. Air Force. In Hershey, Pennsylvania, we were joined by Tunnel to Towers program recipient Rick Yarosh, a retired U.S. Army Sergeant who suffered significant injuries while serving, and Colonel Tom Manion, U.S. Marine Corps (ret.), father of 1st Lt. Travis Manion, who died serving his country in Iraq. Their stories of strength and perseverance in the face of tremendous loss demonstrate why we do what we do every day.
It’s stories like theirs that I’ve reflected on during this walk. This is a long walk, and it’s provided me with a lot of time to think about who I’m doing this walk for. First and foremost, I walk for my baby brother Stephen, who my family misses every day. I don’t think I’ll ever stop missing him, nor will I ever stop being incredibly proud and awestruck by his heroism. I pray every day that he and my other brother Russ, who are both in heaven together, give me the extra strength I know I will need this September 11.
But they are not the only reasons I am walking on this journey. I walk for every 9/11 victim and fallen first responder, and it is my promise that we will NEVER FORGET them. I walk for each service member who answered the call to service after 9/11, especially those who never returned or who came home with significant injuries, and it's my promise to them that we will take care of them and their families. I walk for each first responder from 9/11 who endured chronic pain and died from 9/11-related illnesses. They are just as much victims of this tragedy as those who died on that day. And lastly, I walk for the families of every fallen first responder and service member. They’ve endured the horrific pain of losing a loved one. We are grateful to them and pray for them.
At the core of the Tunnel to Towers Foundation, is our mission to NEVER FORGET these Americans – they are heroes, they are loved ones, they are leaders and they are selfless. They have paid the ultimate sacrifice so we may live peaceful lives here at home, each of them knowing that there was always the risk of never returning home. Their families have never and will never forget, and neither can we.
For our service members, Gold Star families and injured veterans, we promise to uphold your legacy and the legacy of your brothers and sisters who died in service along the way. We will never stop honoring your sacrifice and we’re working to ensure the next generation learns of your legacy and keeps it alive. In everything the Foundation does, from the Never Forget Walk to our housing programs to the name-reading ceremonies we’ve held along the way, we will continue to uphold the memory and honor the heroism of these great Americans.
For 20 years now, Tunnel to Towers has honored Stephen’s legacy of doing good and we’re going to continue to grow to ensure the families of each fallen first responder or service member with young children gets the help they need. It is my hope that this walk serves as a way to highlight the heroes who died on 9/11 and in service since then. What I’m doing is a small feat compared to what these heroes and their families endured, but if we all do something small, we can make a difference and help these families. It can be as simple as joining one of our 5K runs around the country, stopping by our traveling 9/11 NEVER FORGET Mobile Exhibit, donating to the Foundation or even just saying the name of one of our fallen heroes. If we all commit to remembering, we’ll ensure America NEVER FORGETS.