Stephen Siller, a 34-year-old firefighter in Brooklyn Squad 1, finished his shift on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, eager to meet his brothers for golf. Upon hearing that a plane struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center, he turned his car around. He was stopped at the entrance of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, so he strapped 60 pounds of gear on from his car and ran the three miles through the tunnel, all the way to the towers, where he saved many people before he was killed.  

In honor of Stephen’s heroism, his brothers, Frank and George, started the Tunnel to Towers Foundation (T2T), a non-profit whose fitting motto is “Let Us Do Good.” 

T2T has impacted countless lives by paying off mortgages for the families of passed first responders, offering housing assistance for homeless veterans, holding events and 5Ks, building “smart homes,” and educating the public. T2T has a large presence in North Carolina. 

There is a T2T 5K in Asheville on Sept.16, and one on Oct. 7 in Wake Forest.  

In North Carolina alone, T2T has built homes for or paid off the mortgages of 33 families whose loved ones were injured or killed in the line of duty. Recently, they paid off the mortgage of fallen Wayne County police officer Matthew Fishman. The family of fallen firefighter Austin Taylor Smith, who died within a week of a Leukemia diagnosis in July, will have their mortgage paid off this month. 

On Wednesday, the Kugler family’s newly renovated and paid-for home was dedicated after South Carolina Trooper LCPL Devin Kugler was injured in the line of duty. He was hit by a drunk driver during a routine field-sobriety test.  

Image of the Kugler family provided to CJ by Tunnels to Towers.

 “There is a profound loss of words for how Tunnel to Towers has impacted our lives,” said Devin’s wife, Mandie, on behalf of her husband and their family. “We cannot fathom the road we would have had to walk without them. 

“All of a sudden there’s a phone call telling you, not only will we make your husband’s showers more accessible or fix your floors… but we will… upgrade your lifestyle. Now I don’t have to lift my 200lb husband up the steps into the house. We don’t have to worry anymore… That shows the heart in our first responders and the heart of America.” 

T2T also builds and completely finances “smart homes” for wounded veterans in need of independence and self-sufficiency. 

Those who come home from combat having been catastrophically injured may be eligible to receive these houses, which are technologically catered to the needs of each of them. The homes include a wide range of features, from automated doors, to special showers, to app or tablet-controlled heating and air conditioning, lights, and more.  

T2T has constructed and fully paid for smart homes for five North Carolina residents, and two more are in progress. 

The foundation has also educated hundreds of thousands of people through its mobile exhibit. A fully mobile museum, the truck includes relics from the World Trade Center, informational plaques, pictures, and a wall of the names of firefighters who lost their lives because of 9/11. Sadly, it is regularly updated after each new death due to 9/11 sickness. 

Every year, the 83-foot tractor-trailer visits Southport, North Carolina, for several days during the Fourth of July week. It brings thousands of tourists annually, including my family. T2T is so integral to the town’s summer that the truck’s volunteers are personally hosted by the Southport Fire Department.  

Several retired NYC firefighters who moved to North Carolina volunteer with T2T’s mobile exhibit by escorting participants through it. Christopher Maloney, Billy Puckett, Stephen Spellman, Lou Celestino, and Gus Bitetto all travel to various states and North Carolina towns to tell their story and that of their fallen brothers.  

My hero and my father, Christopher Maloney, has volunteered with the exhibit for six years, and has traveled to Holly Ridge, Camden, Gastonia, and Southport in North Carolina, as well as other states like South Carolina, Minnesota, and Tennessee. Also, after Kentucky and New Orleans were struck by tornadoes right before Christmas in 2021, my dad and his retired FDNY brothers took the truck west, where they handed out over 15,000 toys paid for by T2T. The toy donations have become an annual project.  

Having seen the foundation contribute to all kinds of communities, he feels fortunate to be able to help. 

“It is an honor to be a volunteer for… Tunnel to Towers,” Maloney said. “Steve, Billy, Lou, Gus, and I have been blessed to be a part of that and help get these things done. I have seen students learn lessons they were never taught, community members cry and weep at a tragedy that happened 22 years ago. Our involvement in this community is still an ongoing process.” 

9/11 is still a major part of so many people’s lives to this day.  

“We have buried brothers and friends who have succumbed to their 9/11 injuries,” Maloney said. “Tunnel to Towers is just a very supportive unit for people who have gone through it. We try to help people who need it as humbly as possible. People are still living the effects of 9/11, and Tunnel to Towers reminds us to Never Forget.”  

Billy Puckett, the driver of the mobile exhibit, is a close family friend. 

“Tunnel to Towers for sure changes lives,” Puckett said. “You give an amputee veteran their independence back. Last year the foundation built 500 homes under their new program for homeless vets, and this year will be over 2,000, and next year 3,000 from here to California.  

“Being able to take care of a young man or woman that had joined the military to protect our country, and came back missing limbs, it’s giving them another chance at life. It’s awesome.” 

Among T2T volunteers, a striking humility is common. 

“It’s so humbling and such an honor to do what I do,” Puckett said. “Just traveling with the exhibit… you see the impact. It brings us back to that day. It doesn’t get any easier.” 

The recurrence of 9/11 every year is not an anniversary; it is a memorial. It is a day of remembrance and reverence, to recognize the sacrifices and legacies of too many heroes who gave their lives to save others. As Americans, we have a responsibility to Never Forget

Puckett reminds Americans not to forget the “phenomenal things” that came from 9/11, and he says proudly, “[Tunnel to Towers] is one of those things.” This year, let us honor Stephen Siller, his fallen brothers and sisters, and the organization built in his memory.