John McAvoy was an FDNY firefighter with Ladder Co. 3 in Greenwich Village, N.Y., on Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center towers by flying airplanes into them, ultimately causing the towers to collapse and killing thousands of civilians and first responders.
McAvoy was one of 12 members of Ladder Co. 3 who were killed that day. To honor him and other first responders who gave their lives in the line of duty, one of his bunker coats is on display inside the 9/11 Never Forget Mobile Exhibit, which will be open from 1 to 7 p.m. all five days of the Washington Town & Country Fair near the North/shuttle gate.
Admission is included with the price of your Fair ticket.
Catherine Christman, director of media relations for the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation which operates the exhibit, said seeing McAvoy’s bunker coat is a simple, but moving experience.
“We felt that was a very poignant and immediate way to, in a sense, bring John McAvoy and what he was all about to the attention of the people going through and taking the tour,” Christman told The Missourian.
That’s the goal of the exhibit — to grab your attention and evoke an emotion from you that means you will never forget these people, their stories or the reality of what happened on that day.
“One of the times I was in the exhibit, I heard the firefighter giving the tour say every one of the members of his wedding party were killed (on 9/11) . . . Another time I heard another firefighter talk about how the buildings came down in 11 seconds,” said Christman.
“Among the two most poignant things for me when I go through the exhibit are the fact that there is a golf ball there, that in the middle of everything else getting pulvarized that day, that the golf ball remained. It is really stunning in many ways.
“Also, the audiotape of the firefighters speaking to one another, little knowing that in a few minutes they would be dead,” she added. “With such great confidence and assurance in their voices that they were going to be able, not only to save lives, but ultimately put the fire out. There is no doubt in their voices that they knew what had to be done, and they were just proceeding very matter-of-factly, ‘this is what we need and then we’re going to be able to succeed.’
“That is very poignant to me to hear that, especially in the framework of knowing that shortly thereafter they would be killed.”
According to McAvoy’s brother, Michael, his unit last called in when they were on the 31st floor of World Trade Center Tower 1. His back-up bunker coat, the one he wasn’t wearing that day, is what you see inside the 9/11 Never Forget Mobile Exhibit.
“Those who have toured our exhibit this year have been very moved by the silent tribute it pays to its owner,” said Christman.
Never Forget is a tribute to all the lives that were lost in the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and serves as a tool to educate America’s youth about that historic day.
Dedicated on Sept. 11, 2013, in Fayetteville, N.C., it has been on the road for nearly six years. Two years ago it was at the 2017 Washington Town & Country Fair.
“We are back by popular demand, and honored that is the case, that so many folks were interested in seeing it and want to make sure that every person is there to be reminded or find out what happened on 9/11 has that opportunity,” said Christman.
“One of the things that we are most proud of is that the tours are conducted by FDNY firefighters, many of them now retired, who were eyewitnesses to this history. How often do we have the opporutnity to be able to ask people who were actually on scene or shortly thereafter what the experience was like and to see that world through their eyes?”
In Memory of Stephen Siller
The 9/11 Never Forget Mobile Exhibit is a program of the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation.
Siller was the youngest of seven children, the father of five children and an FDNY (Fire Department of New York) firefighter assigned to Brooklyn’s Squad 1 who responded to the World Trade Center scene on 9/11 even though he was not on duty.
“Stephen drove his truck to the entrance of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, but it had already been closed for security purposes,” the Tunnel to Towers Foundation notes on its website, www.tunnel2towers.org. “Determined to carry out his duty, he strapped 60 pounds of gear to his back and raced on foot through the tunnel to the Twin Towers, where he gave up his life while saving others.”
On the first anniversary of 9/11, Siller’s family created the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation in his memory.
It was John Hodge, a first cousin of Siller, who had the idea to create the Never Forget mobile exhibit. In traveling around the country in the years after 9/11, Hodge discovered there were a lot of areas where 9/11 wasn’t being taught in schools, unfortunately, Lisa Reiss, with Tunnel to Towers, told The Missourian back in 2017.
“Young people who were born after 9/11 are exactly the reason why John had the idea to create the exhibit,” Reiss said. “It was built as an educational tool.
“We first thought we would go primarily to schools, and then we discovered that families do come to fairs and air shows and music festivals, so for us to be able to reach as many people as possible, we branched out and we do spend most of our summer touring in the fair market,” she added.
Christman, who is a cousin of Siller’s, said the family was hearing anecdotally that schools were not teaching anything about 9/11, for one reason or another, so they wanted to step in and provide those lessons.
“So many of the children nowadays were either very young or weren’t even born yet when 9/11 happened, and we think it’s very important to remind adults as well about what happened that day,” said Christman. “And we know so few are ultimately going to be able to get to New York City, so this is our way of bringing it to the public and to people.”
And for anyone who was able to tour the exhibit two years ago when it was at the Washington Town & County Fair, it’s worth touring again, even multiple times, if possible, Christman said.
“It’s hard to comprehend when you see it all at once. So if they came to the exhibit before, they can still learn things this time around,” she said.
‘A Very Sensory, Immersive Experience’
The 9/11 Never Forget exhibit, which is inside a 53-foot tractor-trailer that expands to a 1,100-square-foot space, is handicap-accessible and age-appropriate. The most graphic piece of information included is a video of the second plane hitting the second tower.
There is no terrorism in the exhibit. Rather, it is focused on the heroism of the first responders.
Firefighters who responded on 9/11 or immediately afterward act as the tour guides.
“We still believe that is among the most special features we can offer people,” said Christman.
The exhibit also has an audio-guided tour for anyone who would rather walk through on their own.
The exhibit is divided into three rooms, the first of which is dedicated to the World Trade Center. Details include when and how the twin towers were built, how tall they were, and even the marketing campaign video that was created by New York City to entice businesses to move into the towers.
From there, visitors go through a five-panel time line that outlines the exact events as they happened on 9/11, and that leads into the second room, which is the 9/11 room.
Here visitors will see steel from the World Trade Center, a piece of facade from the front of the building, firefighting apparatus and a piece of granite from the World Trade Center that people can see and touch.
There also are items that were found on “the pile” after the towers collapsed.
“It’s a very sensory experience. It’s an immersive experience,” said Christman.
The 9/11 Never Forget exhibit includes artifacts that have been donated or loaned to the Foundation by FDNY firefighters and fire stations in New York City.
The final room in the exhibit tells Stephen Siller’s story, and in the middle of that room is a miniature bronze statue of Siller. The full-size statue stands at Randall’s Island in New York City, which is where FDNY sends new firefighters for training.
The third room also includes information about the Tunnel to Towers Foundation, videos of Siller’s life and panels showing what the Foundation does through its Building for America’s Bravest program.
Finally, there is a Wall of the Fallen Heroes, which features a list of all the first responders who perished on 9/11 and the names of all of the firefighters who have died post-9/11 as a result of 9/11. This includes firefighters who died from illness related to cleaning up the debris, for example. That particular panel is updated once a year.
There are two donation boxes with the exhibit where people can make donations to the Tunnel to Towers Foundation. There also is a merchandise trailer, where, for a donation, people can receive a firefighter hat or T-shirt with 100 percent of the proceeds going directly to the Foundation.
The length of time it takes to go through the exhibit can vary. Christman said 30 to 40 minutes is the average, but people go through at their own pace.
Building Smart Homes for Veterans, Supporting Gold Star Families
In addition to the 9/11 Never Forget Mobile Exhibit, the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation operates several programs in support of first responders, American veterans and Gold Star families.
“We do everything from building high-tech smart homes for veterans who come home from war missing multiple limbs,” said Christman. “We now have 75 smart homes all across the country that we’ve either already handed the keys to or are in the advanced building stage.”
Last fall, the foundation launched the Gold Star Family Program where it provides mortgage-free homes to the remaining spouses and children of veterans killed in the line of duty.
“We know firsthand what that is like for a family, in the middle of everything else, to be grappling with that issue,” said Christman. “If we can remove this burden and this terrible financial stress from the family as quickly as possible, that’s what we are all about.”
People who tour the 9/11 Never Forget Mobile Exhibit are supporting those programs as well, said Christman, because they are educating themselves about the ongoing stories that are a result of what happened on 9/11.
“These are the ramifications of what happened on 9/11, one day that still continues to have really direct influence on so many lives today,” she said. “For all we know, the children who will be going through and taking the tour, it will continue. 9/11 will continue to have tentacles and ramifications on their world as well, maybe even their children. Who knows how long into the future.
“This happened almost 18 years ago and it still hasn’t gone away, and it still has great influence. We see no sign of that changing.”
For more information on the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, the programs it offers or the 9/11 Never Forget Mobile Exhibit, go to https://tunnel2towers.org/.