Thirteen years ago this morning, 343 New York City firefighters perished when the World Trade Center buildings collapsed.
For many, the horrific images of that Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack are emblazoned in memory. Sadly however, those born since then have no recollection of fateful day.
This past Sunday, Great Bend firefighters participated in an event aimed at keeping that watershed moment alive. They took part in the fourth-annual Memorial Stair Climb held in Kansas City, Mo.
“They felt the memory of 9-11 was getting lost,” Great Bend Fire Department Capt. Luke McCormick said of climb organizers. This marked the second year McCormick has taken part.
The Great Bend men were part of 343 firefighters from seven states who ran up and down the stairs of the 34-floor Town Pavilion building until they had climbed 110 flights of stairs.
That’s equal to the number of firefighters killed and there were 110 floors in the tallest of the two towers.
The Great Bend contingent included McCormick, and firefighters Tony Leeds, Nicholas Maddy, and Blake Kratzer. Their team also included Hays firefighter Justin Chiotz.
Also involved were firemen from other communities who had ties to Great Bend.
Each climbed the 110 flights in full fire-fighting bunker gear and a helmet, and wearing an air tank, 80 extra pounds in all. As the climb drug on, that canvas clothing became soaked with sweat, making it even heavier.
Bunkers are designed to keep the heat of a suffocating fire out, but they also trap it inside.
“It was grueling. The heat was the worst part,” McCormick said.
The teams of five to six took breaks along the way and each of them looked out for the others. “You do this as team. It’s not a race. It’s not a competition It’s about paying tribute,” McCormick said.
After each trip to the top, they took the elevator down, but that didn’t provide much rest. “That elevator ride wasn’t very long,” Leeds said. It took about two hours to complete the task of climbing over 2,400 steps.
Each climber participated in memory of a firefighter who was lost that day. They carried a photograph and biographical sketch of those they honored, speaking their names and ringing a bell to pay tribute.
“This is for their toughness and the sacrifices they made,” McCormick said. “We’re finishing what they couldn’t because the buildings collapsed.”
They trained on 100-plus-degree days in the department’s enclosed tower and by running the steps at Great Bend High School’s Memorial Stadium. Their goals were to get in shape and acclimate themselves to the stifling heat.
The first stair climb held to support the mission of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation was held on Sept. 11, 2005, when five Colorado firefighters convened at a high-rise building in downtown Denver to climb 110 flights of stairs in memory of their FDNY brothers who were killed in the terrorist attacks of 9-11. The following year, 12 firefighters participated, representing four fire departments from the metro Denver area. Each subsequent years, attendance grew, until it was capped at 343 participants in 2008.
Since its beginning, the Denver 9-11 Memorial Stair Climb has evolved into an annual nationwide event with climbs in several cities.
In 2010, the original Denver team partnered with the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation to create a template that would enable coordinator to successfully replicate a 9-11 Memorial Stair Climb anywhere in the United States.
The United States Congress created the NFFF to lead a nationwide effort to remember America’s fallen firefighters. Since 1992, the tax-exempt, nonprofit Foundation has developed and expanded programs to honor fallen firefighters and assist their families and coworkers.