Mark O'Brien of Marilla left college and joined the Marines after watching the World Trade Center towers collapse Sept. 11, 2001.
It is fitting, then, that a foundation named for a New York City firefighter who died that day spent more than a half-million dollars to renovate his entire house, inside and out, making it more user friendly for the veteran who lost a leg and an arm fighting in Iraq.
O'Brien, his wife, Michelle, and their two children, Jack, 9, and Nathan, 7, got their first look inside their new "smart" house Thursday morning.
"This looks unbelievable," Michelle O'Brien said. "Wow. I can't believe this is our house."
"It's going to make my life so much easier," Mark O'Brien said.
The transformation of the house on Three Rod Road was undertaken by the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation. Siller, the youngest of seven children, was a New York City firefighter who was driving home from his overnight shift Sept. 11, 2001 when he heard that planes had flown into the twin towers. He turned his truck around, went back to his squad, picked up his gear, and drove to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, which had already been closed. He ran through the tunnel to the towers, and lost his life when the towers collapsed. His body was never recovered.
Siller's brother, Frank, is chairman and CEO of the foundation, which honors Stephen Siller by helping military and first responders with catastrophic injuries regain independence. It has built or rebuilt more than 50 homes around the country.
A small motorcade led by the Erie County Sheriff's Department Mounted Division and including apparatus from Marilla, Spring Brook, South Line and East Aurora fire companies and other responders and the Patriot Guard led the O'Brien family in their car down Three Rod Road to their home Thursday morning. A huge American flag was erected in front of the house, and a small stage was in front of that as family, friends and neighbors watched the presentation of the ceremonial key to the house.
Siller also gave O'Brien some steel from the twin towers.
"We look at the steel from those trade centers as being very precious. We look at the steel because it has the souls of so many firefighters and everyday people that were never recovered," he said. "When we give this piece of steel, believe me when I tell you, when I hand this to you Mark, I am handing you the soul of my brother, and the soul of so many people that perished that day."
O'Brien joined the Marines and was in boot camp by January 2002. He was a corporal in his second tour in Iraq when his company came under heavy fire. He was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade Nov. 8, 2004.
"It hit me in the leg, ripped my leg right off, blew my elbow off, started me on fire. It was pretty rough," he said, crediting his fellow soldiers with saving his life. "I've come a long way from laying in that street bleeding to death."
He eventually recovered, and worked as a dispatcher for the Erie County Sheriff's Office, and gave motivational speeches. O'Brien, 34, retired from both after he had some additional health problems.
The O'Briens lived with his parents while their home was being transformed, which took about three and a half months. The family entered the house after O'Brien ran a smaller flag up the pole in front.
The foundation, with donations from various vendors, added lighting and temperature systems controlled by an iPad, music in four rooms, motorized drapes, all new furniture, new flooring throughout the house, a "man cave" in the basement with an additional bathroom, kitchen cabinets, appliances, pull downs in kitchen to bring dishes to counter top level, and a door in the master bedroom for emergency exits. Outside, the house has a new roof, siding, large deck, hot tub and exterior doors, and the long gravel driveway was blacktopped.
"It's basically a brand-new home," Siller said.
Improvements cost more than a half-million dollars, Siller said.
O'Brien said the accessibility options in the kitchen will help him when he uses his wheelchair.
"Standing in front of a stove on one leg, it's not easy. This is going to make things a lot easier for me," he said.
The O'Briens said when they first got a call from the foundation, they thought it was a crank call, and they decided they did not want a new house. But they're glad they called back.
"From the bottom of my heart," O'Brien said, "thank you."