Many remarkable stories of bravery and sacrifice emerged from the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. One such story is of Stephen Siller, a New York City firefighter who dropped his golf game with his brothers to rush to the World Trade Center when he heard the news of two planes crashing into it. When Siller got stuck in traffic in the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, he piled on 60 pounds of gear and ran the entire distance, helping people along the way.

The seventh annual Tunnel to Towers 5K honors Siller and 342 of his fellow firefighters, who died when the towers came crashing down.

“We’re expecting record numbers of participants this year,” says race director Jane Grismer. “Right now we’re looking at 2,000.”

The race begins and ends in Orleans Square and families and servicemen will come from all over to participate. Over 600 stationed military are running this year.

 

Last year’s race was canceled because of Hurricane Irma. Amazingly, almost no one asked for a refund, so registration is free to those who registered last year.

Money raised by the 5K goes to building smart homes for catastrophically wounded soldiers. The high-tech homes are specially designed to assist amputees and those in wheelchairs and help them live more independently. A portion of the proceeds will also go to the 200 Club of the Coastal Empire.

Honoring the fallen

This year the race will honor Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Celiz of Hunter Army Airfield, who was killed in combat in Afghanistan in July. His platoon will start the race and the funds raised by the event will be presented to the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation in his name.

Also being honored are Jimmy Perez, Michael Curry and Mark Hummeldorf, three local firefighters who lost their lives this year. Their names will be included with the 343 New York City firefighters who fell during 9/11, whose names will adorn signs held by Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, endearingly referred to as Team 343, that will line Forsyth Park.

Congruent with the race is the Siller Cup, a competition between teams of firefighters from different departments. Sometimes they even run in full gear. The winners receive a trophy that they get to keep until the next race. The competition is pretty tough.

“Bluffton Township Fire Department has won every year,” Grismer points out.

However, the trophy will be engraved with a different name this year. “The winner of 2017 is going to be Hurricane Irma,” Grismer says. “We didn’t want to just leave it empty.”

Stephen's story

Grismer has a close connection to this race as her brothers, Jimmy and Richard, are New York City firefighters. Grismer also attended St. Agnes Cathedral High School with Stephen Siller, who graduated two years before her.

“He was probably the most popular kid in school,” says Grismer. “He was just so well loved. I know that if there were any other graduates of St. Agnes in this area, they would be organizing this race right along ide of me. I do it for all them. I do it for everyone we went to school with.

"It’s just an honor to be able to tell Stephen’s story and to help people to never forget 9/11 and the to never forget the sacrifices made post-9/11 overseas and as the result of illness for the people who were at Ground Zero.”

Special bonds

One returning participant of the race is retired firefighter, Lt. Joseph Pigott of the FDNY. Pigott has been running in the Tunnel to Towers 5K since its inaugural race in New York City.

“It was the next year after Sept. 11,” says Pigott. “The Sillers were instrumental in getting this race started right away. It was a small race, face painting, really family oriented and it just kind of meant something. They loved their brother ... and it’s a great story.”

The New York iteration of the race traces Stephen Siller’s trek through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel to the World Trade Center. “It really brought to life Stephen’s journey,” says Pigott.

When Savannah began its own Tunnel to Towers 5K, Pigott was sent down to represent the FDNY and he has participated every year since.

He has become so close to the event and its organizers that he even joined the Grismers on their family vacation. It is a testament to the strong feelings and bonds the 5K engenders.

“Being that I lived through the nightmare of Sept. 11, 2001, when we were working down in the pile, it was amazing how many people were lining West Street as we were going by in the buses to do our shift,” Pigott reminisces. “They weren’t cheering us on, but giving us support ... It brought this country together.

“And that’s what this race does. We all have the same goal. We all want to help those that are finishing the fight for us. As firemen, we have a special bond with the vets, and as human beings, we have a bond with each other because we all feel that these heroes should not be forgotten.”