Somewhere amid their 2,000-plus-stair march up and down the steps of Doc Wadley Stadium early Wednesday morning, a harsh reality set in for nine Tahlequah firefighters.
While they would be able to take a break from the grueling 110-story trek, or decide to call it off when their lungs or legs could take no more, hundreds of first responders in New York City didn’t have that option on Sept. 11, 2001.
Instead, the men of the FDNY grabbed their bunker gear that morning and raced up flight after flight of stairs, trying to save the lives of those who were inside the World Trade Center towers when terrorists directed planes into the buildings.
Those firefighters faced death and destruction every step of their way, perhaps never expecting that two pillars of America’s strength would come crashing down around them in so little a time.
It forever changed New York City’s skyline and the lives of thousands of families who lost loved ones.
When the dust settled on that day 12 years ago, 343 men of the FDNY lost their lives to the horror that befell the U.S.
Tahlequah firefighters – along with dozens of students, ROTC members, other first responders and a few community members – gathered at Northeastern State University at 6 a.m. for a memorial stair climb in honor of the first responders who died as they tried to climb some 110 stories at the WTC.
“Push forward!” “Good job, brother!” “You’ve got this!”
The words of encouragement rang out around the stadium – a far cry from the frantic screams made inside the towers in NYC.
“They only made it to 78,” Tahlequah firefighter Cody Nissen said as he finished his climb and slumped into the metal bleachers of the stadium to catch his breath. Sweat dripped from Nissen’s face as the sun began to rise and participants began to end their journey.
“The firefighters in New York City only made it to about the 78th floor,” he said again.
Nissen and the eight other Tahlequah firefighters who trudged along Wednesday – Nick Perkins, Sean Valdez, Capt. Aaron Garrett, Lt. Justin Hackworth, Brad Hale, Anthony Margarit, Josh Brinkley and Kyle Hix – all donned their bunker gear when the climb began.
Perkins knew going into Wednesday morning’s activity it would be harsh, especially carrying the extra weight of his gear.
“It was pretty brutal,” Perkins said when he finished.
“Two thousand and seven steps; 110 stories. Brutal.”
Valdez said the trudge up and down the stadium steps gave him a new appreciation for what firefighters in New York City experienced on 9/11. Participants made 12 rounds up and down the stadium stairs to hit the 2,000-plus steps.
“We shed our gear on the eighth round up,” said Valdez. “It was brutal.”
As each jaunt around the stadium ended, Garrett rang the fire department’s “last alarm” bell. When the last firefighter came through, he sounded the bell three times and others who had finished broke into applause.
“I was talking to Aaron about participating in this, and he was talking about us wearing our gear,” Hackworth said before the climb began Wednesday morning. “I told him I wasn’t sure I could do it. He said, ‘Well, they did it in New York City, and they just showed up for work.’ He was right. So we do this in their honor.”