When Specialized Mobile Exhibits’ owner, Toby Robertson, learned that the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation wanted his company to create its nationally touring 9/11 mobile exhibit, he was humbled.
Robertson, whose dad was a firefighter, and his Mooresville-based company provide design, fabrication and logistical support for the interactive – or experiential – marketing industry. They were charged with creating an exhibit that told the story of 9/11 and educated the public, specifically those born after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City.
SME created a 53-foot expandable semi trailer that can be transformed into an interactive, walk-through multimedia exhibit. Roughly six months of work and more than 1,500 man hours went into its fabrication and design. The exhibit, which is stored and maintained in Mooresville, features artifacts from the World Trade Center, and tells the story of the foundation’s namesake.
“It’s makes sense to build a tribute in New York but the whole country participated in that day, and (our exhibit) provides an opportunity for the whole country to learn more, get involved and never forget that day,” said Robertson.
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The ribbon-cutting ceremony for the mobile exhibit was held Sept. 11, 2013, at the Airborne & Special Operations Museum in Fayetteville. Since then, it has traveled to nearly a dozen states throughout the United States.
This Sept. 11, the exhibit will be on display at Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum in Grand Rapids, Mich., in conjunction with an all-day Boy Scouts remembrance event.
John Hodge, vice president of operations for the foundation, worked with SME on the exhibit’s design.
“For us, this is all about making sure the current generation knows what happened on 9/11,” said Hodge. “Because we say we’re never going to forget but we’re destined to forget if they don’t teach it in schools and, by and large, it’s not being taught in any great detail.”
A cousin of Stephen’s, Hodge has led multiple tours of exhibit.
“There isn’t a time when I’m out with this exhibit that, at some point, you don’t get emotional,” said Hodge. “Sometimes, it gets more than a little emotional.”
Running into danger
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, New York City firefighter Stephen Siller had just gotten off duty when the first plane struck the North Tower.
When he learned what happened, he ran through the blocked-off Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and back to the Twin Towers, with more than 60 pounds of firefighting gear on his back. Along with 342 other firefighters, he died trying to help others. He was 34 and left behind a wife and five kids.
By the time Stephen was 10, he had lost both his parents and ended up being raised by his six older siblings, who are now the driving force behind the foundation established in their brother’s memory.
“He taught his older siblings an important lesson: that every day is so important,” said Frank Siller, Stephen’s brother who serves as chairman of the foundation. “He knew that because of his experience with death at an early age and he didn’t waste a moment, and he was always doing good with his time.”
The foundation continues to do the same in Stephen’s honor by hosting an annual 5K event that allows people to follow in Stephen’s footsteps through the tunnel. Now in its 13th year, the event has grown from a few thousand people to more than 25,000 attending annually.
The foundation also raises money to support its Building for America’s Bravest initiative that helps build “smart homes for our most catastrophically injured service members,” according to its website.
Traveling across the country
Toby Chambers, 40, a volunteer firefighter for nearly a decade at station No. 1 in Hoke County, commutes to Mooresville for work. He’s SME’s full-time driver for the exhibit and the unofficial spokesperson for it.
His wife is a first sergeant in the Army and is serving in Afghanistan, so he relates with 9/11 on multiple levels.
“I’m very proud to be doing what I’m doing because I didn’t know any of the 343 firefighters that perished that day, but they’re all brothers,” said Chambers. “Then, the whole project (aims) to build smart homes for soldiers … so I catch both ends of this truck’s mission.”
Kurt Gentry, SME’s executive vice president who helped design and develop the museum with the Siller family’s input, said it’s his most meaningful project.
“Their story has just ballooned and it’s become kind of an icon for not only Sept. 11 but the recovery efforts and a lot of the education aspects,” said Gentry.