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A YEAR AFTER

A Family's Private Journey of Unending Grief

Tragedy: Firefighter's loved ones help engineer a memorial run but can't escape the pain of their loss.

September 10, 2002|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — In the last minutes of his life, New York firefighter Stephen Siller sprinted through the Brooklyn-Battery tunnel with 80 pounds of gear on his back. He was racing toward the World Trade Center but perished in the Sept. 11 inferno, leaving behind a wife and five young children.

Now, as the one-year anniversary approaches, 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 in her Staten Island home. "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 283 people from Staten Island, many of them firefighters, and the signs of grieving in Siller's tranquil, tree-lined neighborhood remain evident months later. Flags, wreaths and pictures of those who died still adorn the front porches of brick and wood-frame homes.

Inside, there are homemade, living room shrines to those who vanished. The Sillers, who were the subject of a Los Angeles Times profile in December, have placed photos of Stephen on shelves, windowsills and tables, alongside other memorabilia marking his service with the New York Fire Department. "Remember this moment," reads one photo tribute in Sally Siller's home.

Like many families who lost someone on Sept. 11, the Sillers will mark the anniversary with a special event. On Sept. 29, with the permission of New York City officials, the 1.7-mile Brooklyn-Battery tunnel entering Manhattan will be shut down, and 5,000 people will participate in a charity run retracing Stephen's route to the World 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 9/11 families: 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 Sally, a private, soft-spoken woman. "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 that was shattered by the loss of Stephen, who was 34 when he died. Their careful respect for Sally'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, Sally'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, Catherine 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.

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. Determined to start a family of his own, he married Sally Wilson, a childhood friend from the same tree-lined Staten Island neighborhood where he grew up. They had five children in 10 years.

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