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Thread: A Tunnel of Darkness Runs Through Family

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    Registered User SeaBreeze's Avatar
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    A Tunnel of Darkness Runs Through Family

    A Tunnel of Darkness Runs Through Family

    Tuesday, September 24, 2002

    By JOSH GETLIN
    LOS ANGELES TIMES

    In the last minutes of his life, West Brighton Firefighter Stephen Siller sprinted through the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel with 80 pounds of gear on his back, racing toward the World Trade Center. He perished in the Sept. 11 inferno, leaving behind a wife and five children.

    Now, with the anniversary of the attack behind them, Siller's loved ones are traveling through a different tunnel -- a dark passage filled with grief and a realization that, for all the media chitchat about moving on and picking up the pieces, theirs is a mourning without end.

    "What does moving on really mean?" asked Siller's widow, Sally, as she rocked her daughter Genevieve on a quiet, rainy morning. "If it means coming to terms with what happened, none of us have done that. A year is meaningless. We're still devastated."

    The terrorist attacks killed 267 current and former residents from Staten Island, and the signs of grieving in the Sillers' tranquil, tree-lined neighborhood remain evident. Flags, wreaths and pictures of those who died adorn the front porches of brick and wood-frame homes.

    Inside, there are living-room shrines to those who vanished. The Sillers have placed photos of Stephen on shelves, windowsills and tables, alongside other memorabilia marking his six years with the Fire Department. "Remember this moment," reads one photo tribute in Mrs. Siller's home. A LIVING TRIBUTE

    Like many families who lost someone on Sept. 11, the Sillers are marking Stephen's death with a special event. On Sunday, the 1.7-mile Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel entering Manhattan will be shut down, and 5,000 people will participate in a charity run retracing his route to the Trade Center. Inside, 343 firefighters will hold flags, commemorating those department members who died. Although the event focuses on one man's story, it is intended to honor every person who was murdered in the attacks.

    For all the strength and inspiration the Sillers hope to draw from such an event, however, their tribute underscores a dilemma facing many families of Sept. 11 victims: Grieving in private is hard enough, but how do you cope with a tragedy that was also a media event -- a day that changed the world forever?

    "I believe our run through the tunnel can be a rallying point," said Mrs. Siller. "Yet Stephen's death has been painful because it was out in the open. It was part of something that everyone saw on TV. It's everywhere. And there are times when I need to be alone."

    The Sillers, a boisterous, fun-loving clan, are the first to understand this and give way. Yet it's not easy in an extended family of 57 people who were shattered by the loss of Stephen, 34 years old when he died. Their respect for Mrs. Siller's space clashes with a hunger to be with her and the children: Katie, 10; Olivia, 6; Genevieve, 4; Jake, 2; and Stephen, 20 months.

    "These kids are five little pieces of Stephen and they're all that's left of him in the world," said Catherine Mooney, Mrs. Siller's sister. "We need to help them as best we can, because at the end of the day, my sister has to face this herself. If anything, her sadness has deepened over time."

    The children have also been affected. Katie has become quieter and more distant in the last year, Mrs. Mooney said. There are times when Olivia doesn't feel safe or secure, and Genevieve -- at play with other children -- will explain that someone is dead because "everybody dies." Jake walks through the house kissing a picture of his father, and little Stephen, who was born with a heart defect, had major surgery earlier this year that was only partially successful.

    OVERHWELMING SUPPORT

    From the minute her husband died, Sally, 34, has been overwhelmed with visits from family members, close friends, firefighters and others nearly frantic with a desire to help. She has rarely been alone, and those closest to her know that this concern can be a hindrance as well as a help.

    "There are moments when Sally needs to breathe, to be by herself," said her mother, Ann. "You need to let go. But in this family, that's hard."

    The youngest of seven siblings, Stephen Siller was marked by tragedy at an early age. Both his parents died by the time he was 10, and he was raised by much older brothers and sisters on Long Island. Determined to start a family of his own, he married Sally Wilson, a childhood friend from the same tree-lined West Brighton neighborhood he lived in as a child. They had five children in 10 years.

    Siller, outgoing and eager to help others, was drawn to the Fire Department, where he gained a reputation as a workaholic. He always had the scanner on, even on his days off, and that played a role in his death. On the morning of Sept. 11 he had finished work and was driving away from the Brooklyn firehouse where he was a member of Squad 1, an elite rescue company. Siller was planning to join his brothers to play golf, but then he heard the first crackling reports of the attacks on the World Trade Center.

    Wheeling around in traffic, he gunned his black Ford pickup toward the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. But it was closed to all vehicles, so he took off on foot until an engine company picked him up near the other side. He was last seen near Tower 2, just before it collapsed. Squad 1 lost 12 of its 27 members in the inferno.

    "Every time I see that footage on television, I'm thinking: 'That's the exact moment my brother was murdered,'" said Janis Hannan, one of Siller's three sisters. "And if you keep thinking that, as we do, it can play havoc with your life."

    Getting over his death has been difficult because he played such a unique role in his family. He was the free-spirited, irrepressible kid, the organizer of epic vacations and zany weekend activities. He was a tireless dad who spent endless hours with kids, a confidant to his brothers and sisters, an exuberant life force who got all of them off their duffs.

    In death, he continues to have a similar effect.

    KEEPING BUSY

    His brother George runs Victory Sports in Westerleigh and normally tries to relax on the weekends. Since the family began planning the charity run, he's been up at 6 a.m. most days, calling merchants to line up financial support and organize other contributions. He's kept up a dizzying pace, like the others in his clan, and the change stuns him.

    "I feel like a hyper teen-ager in the body of a tired, 50-year-old man," he cracked, rifling through posters advertising the run that have been placed in delis and stores throughout Staten Island, Manhattan and parts of Long Island. "It's like Stephen has taken over my entire life."

    For some, the frantic rush to get everything ready for the charity run has built a psychological wall against the pain they experience every day.

    "I'm running from morning till night because Stephen took over our lives," Janis said. "I just hope we're not running away from feelings."

    Long before the anniversary, the Sillers began discussing an appropriate memorial for Stephen. When they hit on the idea of a Tunnel to Towers charity run, some family members initially were skeptical. How could they possibly navigate the labyrinth of city departments whose approval would be needed to shut down one of New York's busiest interborough tunnels on a Sunday afternoon?

    "We met with city officials from the Department of Transportation and, to our amazement, we had a lot of people saying 'yes' to us," said Frank, another of Stephen's brothers. "It just steam-rolled, and now it's going to happen."

    The purpose of the run is to remember Stephen's sacrifice and the sacrifices of everyone else who died in the terrorist attacks. Planners say the estimated $250,000 that will be raised from participants in the 5-kilometer walk and run will be split between the Sillers' "Let Us Do Good" Children's Foundation and the NYC Firefighter Burn Center Foundation.

    Organizing the event has consumed family members; like a small army they've fanned out to publicize the run and work with city agencies to ensure a dignified ceremony near the World Trade Center site when the race ends.

    CONSTANT REMINDERS

    Mrs. Siller sees reminders of her husband's death everywhere: On TV, in her mail, in random chats with neighbors and in stores, where posters advertising the Tunnel to Towers run feature his smiling photo.

    There are days when she doesn't know if she's actually going to attend the event, no matter how much she supports it. Then, gathering her strength, she vows to participate. No one in the family is pressuring her to decide.

    "Who could blame her for wanting to be alone?" Mary asked. "But there have been signs, important signs, I think, that Sally is moving forward."

    During recent weeks, Mrs. Siller has tried to focus more on her own needs. She's walking regularly, practicing yoga, taking brief vacations with family members and focusing on the rich memories of her life with Siller.

    "We encourage her so much," George Siller said. "But who can tell? She could be crying her eyes out from midnight till dawn and we wouldn't know."

    There have indeed been rough evenings. Nights when children crawl into bed with Mrs. Siller, crying for their father. Nights of numbing darkness.

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    Registered User SeaBreeze's Avatar
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    But there is also hope. Lately, Mrs. Siller has been practicing the saxophone late in the evening. She always loved to play, but had to stop taking lessons after each of her kids was born. There's nothing stopping her now, and after the children are asleep she's been letting it rip at midnight.

    "I guess the whole neighborhood knows that I play," she said sheepishly. "I love the blues. Someday, I want to sing in a rock band."

    It might be a crazy dream, she concedes, but the thought of a better life ahead, a beacon of possibility, brings a smile to her face.

    "I want my kids to know the woman their father fell in love with, if not now, then soon," she said. "And I hear Stephen telling me that every day. He says: 'Keep on going. Keep running. Make it through the tunnel.'"

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