Over 3,000 people died and more than 6,000 were injured 18 years ago as four planes were hijacked by terrorists
Two of those planes crashed into the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. The third struck the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and a fourth plane plummeted into a field in Pennsylvania after passengers tried to intervene and prevent it from hitting another site in the capital.
Each year, area firefighters and others commemorate the tragic events and honor the memory of those who lost their lives on Sept. 11, 2001, with a grueling early-morning effort. Paying tribute to first responders who died that day, they undertake the 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb by trekking nearly 110 stories at the Northeastern State University football stadium - the equivalent of what those heroes climbed in the World Trade Center.
Those who remember the attack can pinpoint exactly where they were and what they were doing when they saw or heard the news on that September day. Tahlequah Fire Chief Ray Hammons reflected on what he was doing when his wife, DeAnna, called him that morning.
"She said a plane flew into the towers, and I thought surely it had to have been an accident. But she said no, it was a jetliner," he said.
He was on his way to the Capitol in Oklahoma City and got another phone call to come back home. Instead, he drove to a Tulsa fire station and watched the horror unfold on TV.
"It sticks in my head as I saw pictures that day and videos of firefighters going in while everybody else was coming out," he said. "In the photos, you see those firefighters' faces and you can see they knew - by looking at them - they were going in and they weren't coming out."
On that day, 343 firefighters, 70 law enforcement officers and 9 EMS workers perished in the attacks. Gideon Fire Chief Marty Kimble said the day is an overwhelming one, and seeing everyone who comes out to the climb the bleachers at NSU is motivational for him.
"To see all of these other people out here, that's pretty amazing," he said. "I was reluctant to get up this morning, and two of the firefighters said they wanted to do it, so I said, 'OK, if you all get up, I'll get up and be there with you.'"
Paying homage to those firefighters, individuals from the NSU Reserve Officer Training Corps, Tahlequah Fire Department, Gideon Fire Department and community members gathered at Doc Wadley Stadium and marched up and down the steps.
"It's honoring that they come here and they display their remembrance and honoring what happened that day," said Hammons. "Not just for the 343 firefighters who died, but over 3,000 Americans, and the effect it had on our country."
While participants were able to stop, discard their equipment or take a break from the nearly 2,000-step climb, the FDNY didn't have that option. They just trudged onward to save as many people as they could.
"That's the part that I've always said - you put yourself in that situation to where you know you're risking your life and you know you're going into something that you may not get to come home from," said Hammons.
Tahlequah firefighter Heath Pennington has participated in the stair climb on this day for six years. He said he does it because of the men and women who gave their last fight on that day.
"It means a lot to contribute and to respect the lives lost that day and to do what they did; honor and serve."