As I sit here on 09/13, it’s hard not to ignore the achy feeling in my calves. (Yes, four days later!) When I stand up and walk, each step reminds me of the 2,200 odd steps I completed a couple of nights ago at the Memorial Stair Climb in honor of the firefighters who sacrificed their lives on 9/11. Each twinge of pain makes me smile.
First, I smile because I remember when 2,200 stairs would have cost me a week in bed of reduced activity, pain, fog, and isolation. A day or so of sore calves is fine!
But more importantly, I smile because I’m reminded of what a wonderful experience it was and what an impact it had on my whole family. I know many people all over the country who participated in events like this, and maybe you or someone you know did this year or has in the past. This was my absolute first time even knowing something like this existed in AZ. Here's how it went down.
A month or so ago when Steve yelled out from his office, “Hey babe! Want to do a stair climb the weekend of 9/11 to commemorate the day? We can bring the kids?” I thought, sure, that sounds fun. “Yeah, let’s do it!” I replied and moved on with my day.
Fast forward to last week, as I am checking my calendar. “Hey, Steve, Ummm, when’s this stair climb again, and how many stairs is it?”
“2,226 or so, 7 PM, Saturday at Salt River Fields. It’s the same amount that the firefighters climbed on 9/11 to try and rescue people from the top floors of the World Trade Center.”
2,226 at 100 degrees plus because it’s Arizona, I thought I might die.
But then, his second point started to sink in and overshadow my fear. My mind flashed back to that fateful morning, freshman year of college, as I watched on the news as footage of a 747 went smashing directly into the symbolism of American power, international relations, and progress. That horrific image on replay, intertwined with live interviews from crowded, chaotic, smoke-field streets strung together with I-witness cell phone or home camera film. News channels, all channels, frantically trying to figure out what exactly was taking place. The entire country, the entire world, stopped as the city that never sleeps was brought to its knees.
We all felt that deep sense of loss, of fear, watching in disbelief and powerlessness. We all felt small, vulnerable, and deeply affected.
Much like the recent Covid Pandemic, 9/11 was an event that changed the way we lived significantly. We declared war, ramped up homeland security, and tightened protective measures that impacted our day-to-day lives for the sake of protection. The mood and climate shifted as our grief transitioned to action, but we never forget.
As the years passed on, 9/11 never became a day that didn’t shake me. 09/2001 was right in the middle of a difficult part of my life. I was transitioning from high school and really struggling mentally to find my way. I would always think back to how it made me feel, think about the great many that lost their lives, the freedoms we would never quite be able to enjoy so boundlessly again, and lament.
However, this year when Saturday night rolled around, I was pumped. I was still a little anxious about the large number of stairs I was about to take on, but I was excited to do it with my family and others.
Salt River Fields is the spring training facility used by our MLB team, the Diamondbacks. When we arrived and made our way to the registration table, I started noticing all the fire stations setting up their tents and ALL of their gear. Here’s an idea of a fully decked-out firefighter:
The whole getup, known as “turnout gear,” weighs around 45 lbs, and that only includes helmets, gloves, hoods, boots, coats, and pants.¹ Add on radios, lights, axes, tanks, and other gear for fighting fires, and that weight can double or more.¹
As part of the registration, you could select a name tag with a picture of a firefighter who had lost their life that day. Looking at each face, I thought of the family they left behind. Steve and I randomly selected the same guy, Brian McAleese.
I glanced down at his warm, smiling face throughout the evening, thinking what courage he had to face the unknown danger that day head-on. What physical, mental, and emotional challenges he had to push through. From his wife on the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation,
"Brian helped many people‚ whether he knew them or not‚ without question‚ without hesitation‚ in any way that he could. He was many things to many people."
Brian‚ as well‚ volunteered his time to the National MS Society‚ escorting people afflicted with the disease on various outings.
Brian was known for always – ‘doing the right thing.’
We began the stairs to the left of the field and slowly snaked our way up and down the rows. Dotted throughout the train of people were fully dressed teams of firefighters and police officers, showing respect for their brothers and sisters that answered the “last call” that fateful day in NY. The firefighters that entered the World Trade Center not knowing what would meet them up above. Entering that building, climbing that stairwell, answering the call, fulfilling the pledge to go where others will not. To march into danger to save the lives of others.
In the beginning, we had a slow pace, singing to the music, and smiles and energy were high. As we continued to climb and would pass a firefighter group, I noticed the sweat beading on their foreheads and the look of strain in their eyes. My gaze would expand to take in the size of their thick heavy uniform, gear, metal air tanks, helmets, and boots. Some even wore the gas masks like those in the World Trade Center would have had to do. I looked down at the stadium steps and quickly realized these were also probably half the height of stairwell steps.
Suddenly, I fully realized what those fighters must have pushed through that day. I felt it. I saw it. I was so inspired. A profound wave of gratitude and respect came over me.
After the first lap, over halfway through, I was sweating through my shirt and dripping from the wet bandanas handed out by local radio stations. But I felt amazing. I felt proud. I cheered on my daughter and was so moved when I watched my son fist pump firefighters as they passed. They got it too.
As we closed in on the final half, we passed by a memorial picture and helmet for a young firefighter that had recently lost his life in duty this past April, taken way too soon. It reminded me that I wasn’t just grateful for those who lost their lives on 9/11 but also for the courageous heroes that chose to put their lives in danger for others every day.
Supporting these firefighters was a veteran with a prosthesis, an older lady with knee braces, and a dad carrying a baby on his shoulders. There were groups of people in the stands cheering, clapping, and offering fist pumps of support as you passed. At the finish line, we rang the fire bell to honor those we lost and added our names to the sign.
Sweaty and tired, I was full of energy. So moved by the human spirit and what we can rise to when attacked. The bravery we can show and the selfless acts that take place every day. Today as I think about why that night was so amazing, I realize it’s because I experienced the human capacity to rise against challenges and to come together. The events of 9/11have always reminded me of a day I felt powerless. This year, I was grateful to celebrate the sacrifice and honor the selflessness of so many brave individuals who chose to fight in the face of adversity.
When we wake up every morning, we have no way of knowing the events that will unfold. We are unable to foresee the battles that we face. But if we chose to do the right thing, to challenge ourselves to be good to one another and grateful for our life no matter what it brings, we can honor those who died on 9/11 and those who continue to serve, so we may pursue our hearts' desires. The way ahead may be bleak, uncertain, or overwhelming, but if we dig deep inside, we can muster the human spirit of love and progress.
If you have the opportunity to participate in an exercise-centered charity event, especially this one, bring the family and dial up the gratitude! Find a local memorial stair climb! Make it a goal for next year, you won't regret it.
Matros, M. (April 30, 2021). 7 Facts About Turnout Gear That You Probably Didn't Know. Redline. https://redlinegearcleaning.com/7-facts-about-turnout-gear/