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Undeterred heroes: 'Never Forget Memorial' coming to Dakota County Fairgrounds

“The 9/11 Never Forget Mobile Exhibit” honors those who died Sept. 11, 2001, while responding to the terrorist attacks. This statue is of Stephen Siller, who ran nearly three miles wearing heavy gear to the scene and died in collapse of the Word Trade Center twin towers. Submitted photo

Stephen Siller raced back to his Brooklyn, N.Y., firehouse when he heard news terrorists had attacked the World Trade Center Twin Towers.

"He had just gotten off duty and was headed home to play golf with his brothers in Staten Island, N.Y., and he heard on his scanner in his personal pickup truck what was happening," said John Hodge, cousin of Siller.

Hodge, the chief operating officer with the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, recounted. Siller rolls into Manhattan, but at the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel encounters gridlock. The response to rescue was so strong that Siller pulled his pickup truck off the side of the road because inbound traffic had been cut off.

"Not to be deterred, he gets out and leaves his keys in the truck and puts on his 65 pounds of firefighter gear and starts to run," Hodge said.

Siller hoofed it three miles along the highway in Brooklyn through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. He met up with members from his team and they entered the towers to find and evacuate victims.

He and 12 members died in the collapse of the south tower. No DNA was found from any of those first responders.

The family decided to funnel their deep grief into the Tunnel to Towers Foundation.

"It is very tough to tell the story in a room because people start crying and they cry because of what he did, they cry because he perished, and they cry because he left behind a wife and five kids and the youngest was not even 1 year old," Hodge said.

The foundation's "9/11 Never Forget Memorial Exhibit" will be on the Dakota County Fairgrounds Monday through Wednesday next week. (See the special section in today's edition.)

Calling the truck a literal transformer, Hodge said the trailer enlarges to 11,000 square feet of exhibit space. Artifacts and photos from the World Trade Center aid in the telling the story of Sept. 11, 2001.

The first section explains how the World Trade Center Towers saw 250,000 people walked through the buildings and the subway system below each day.

The second section tells the details of the attack.

"That is the toughest part to go through because it tells what the first responders and everyday citizens did," Hodge said.

Stories of heroism

"We want to tell the children the stories of heroism — they were true, red-blooded Americans who walked the earth and their lives were not as important as those they were trying to save," Hodge added.

The truck's third section shows how downtown Manhattan and New York City have recovered.

Most tour guides are New York firefighters who take vacation time to travel with the exhibit and tell the stories; those died on 9/11 include 343 members of the fire departments in New York. Their message is not political, Hodge said. "It is more explanation on how we must never forget and stay vigilant."