For the Siller Brothers, an Empty Tee on the Golf Course

September 11, 2014

As much as the Siller brothers loved golf, it was a rare and special day when all four of them could play together. Russ was a college professor, George owned a sporting goods store, Frank sold fur coats, and Stephen — the youngest by 14 years at age 34 — was a firefighter. The morning of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, was one of those welcome coincidences that happened three or four times a year when the four of them could escape work and family obligations for a few hours and meet on the course.

"We were the perfect foursome," George Siller said of the spirited matches between the brothers, which often went down to the final hole amid good-natured trash-talking. "We used to say we had 15, 20 years left of doing this."

The brothers, who all lived on Staten Island, were planning to tee off at Glenwood Country Club in New Jersey, where Frank and Stephen had memberships. Frank and Stephen played together at every opportunity and were excellent golfers, each carrying a 3 handicap, which placed them among the top three percent of players in the country. Warm, with deep blue skies and barely a whisper of wind, the weather couldn't have been better for golf and family time.

"Oh my God, it was just too nice," Frank Siller said. "Every day that's like that, it just comes into your head. When it's a 10 weather-wise and clear-wise, it takes you right back."

Stephen had just finished his overnight shift at Fire Engine Squad 1 in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn and was driving from Brooklyn to New Jersey to meet his brothers at the golf course when he heard about the attacks on the World Trade Center. Stephen called his wife Sarah and said, "Tell my brothers I'll catch up with them."

Frank said his brother would have known almost immediately when the first tower was hit just before 9 a.m. because Stephen always kept a firefighter's scanner with him. "If he was out to dinner with his wife," Frank recalled, "he brought that scanner."

What Stephen did that morning was remarkable even by the exceptional standard of bravery set by firefighters, first-responders and cubicle dwellers with no emergency training who helped their co-workers escape the buildings. He stopped his pickup truck at the Brooklyn entrance to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, which was closed to traffic. He put on his fire-resistant coat and pants, helmet, mask and oxygen tank, gear that weighed close to 60 pounds, and started jogging through the 1.7-mile-long tunnel. At one point a fire truck passed Stephen in the tube and the crew asked him if he wanted a lift. "No," he said, "I'll get there before you."

A friend who worked on a different fire truck later told Frank that he took Stephen from the tunnel's exit in Lower Manhattan to the corner of West Street and Liberty Street at the foot of the World Trade Center's South Tower. That witness's account is the last report his family has of Stephen's actions that day. Based on this report, Frank believes that Stephen was in the South Tower when it collapsed at 9:59 a.m., 29 minutes before the North Tower fell.

Stephen's brothers didn't make it to the golf course that morning either, of course. Frank said family members spent the rest of the day divided between his home and Stephen's, two minutes away on Staten Island, watching TV, listening to the radio and calling friends in a desperate search for news. "It was just a day that was supposed to be so different," he said.

Even before Frank knew anything about his brother's actions that morning, he felt a terrible realization when he watched the South Tower fall. Until then, he thought Stephen was just fighting a fire, something he'd done hundreds of times. "When that first tower came down," Frank recalled, "I told my mother-in-law, 'I think I just lost my brother.'"

There was no question in his mind whether Stephen had made it to the towers. "You knew he'd find a way to get there," Frank said. The brother he had played 63 holes of golf with in a single day, the brother who once didn't stop looking for his lost golf ball in a creek until he had found 95 other balls, wouldn't let a closed tunnel keep him from his mission.

"He was a bull," Frank said. "He worked out all the time. He wanted to be prepared for a moment like this."

Stephen's body was never recovered. The family held a memorial service on Oct. 3, 2001, and Stephen's wife, Sally, and their five children, his three brothers and three sisters mourned and tried to move on with their lives. On a late fall day in 2001, the three remaining Siller brothers went out to the golf course. It was Frank's idea; he said that Stephen would want them to keep playing golf together.

But the brothers found they could barely play at all. Russell Siller remembers how hard it was to concentrate. His brothers — much better players than he is — looked like beginners that day. "Our bodies had broken down, and we were all over the lot," Russell said. "It was absolutely pathetic. They were as bad as me."

The Siller brothers didn't even finish 18 holes; after a while, they stopped playing and walked the rest of the course.

In the months after 9/11, the Siller family talked about staging an event to honor Stephen and raise money for charity. A friend of the family suggested a road race. Not just any race, but one that re-traced Stephen's route through the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel to the World Trade Center. "I almost fell to the floor," Frank said. "It was an almost perfect idea."

The idea might have been perfect, but the logistics were another story. Frank met with Robert Adamenko, director of the city Department of Transportation's Office of Special Affairs, to seek approval of the race, which would involve closing the tunnel and several streets in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Adamenko was visibly moved by Stephen's story.

"He got up from behind his desk and he was bawling," Frank said. "He had his right hand up and his finger pointed in the air and he said, 'We're going to get this done!'"

One phone call and 30 minutes later, Frank had the streets and tunnel closed for Sept. 29, 2002, the date of the first Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Run. That 5-kilometer race attracted 2,500 runners, and each year the field kept growing. Frank Siller said he predicts about 35,000 runners for this year's race on Sept. 25.

Since the 2002 race, Frank said, Tunnel to Towers Foundation has raised more than $10 million to help wounded firefighters and military members, and orphaned children.

"You can't sense or change anything, but at least we could try to do some good work," Frank said. "Because we see good, it makes it more acceptable, if that's the right word."

Frank said a man contacted him after one of the first Tunnel to Towers races in the early 2000s. He and his wife had seen news about the road race on television and remembered seeing Stephen the morning of Sept. 11.

"He told me, 'I saw your brother on 9/11,'" Frank said. "'We saw his truck come to a screeching halt. He put on his gear very calmly and he just jogged into the tunnel. We always wondered what happened to that man.'"

Stephen's wife Sarah eventually recovered the truck and his golf clubs. Russell uses Stephen's putter, but the rest of the clubs will stay in the closet until Stephen's oldest son, now 11, is ready to use them, Frank said.

The Siller brothers still play golf whenever the three men can schedule time together. Unlike that heart-wrenching round in late 2001, the brothers can laugh again on the course.

"Tremendous!" Frank exclaims when George's shot sails into the woods.

"The reason he's so good is that he sold his soul to the golf devils," George responds under his breath.

They used to trade the same lines with Stephen.

"Stephen was the biggest buster of them all," George said. "He had a great sense of humor."

The Sillers have their own rituals on the course to remember their brother. When Frank marks his balls with a Sharpie before the round to identify them as his own, he draws a small 's.' And on the final hole, the brothers always place an empty tee in the ground.

George was the last brother to play golf with Stephen. He, his son, and Stephen played a round together the Sunday before 9/11. Later that night he and Stephen watched "Band of Brothers," an HBO series about American soldiers in World War II.

"I told him, 'They don't make heroes like that anymore,'" George said. "He sure proved me wrong."

This story also appears in the "9/11 in 2011: The View From Brooklyn" series on The Brooklyn Ink website.