Why We Climb: Taking the Step to Honor and Heal -- The 9/11 Memorial Stair Climbs

FDNY Commissioner Cassano meets with 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb committee at The Rock. Courtesy of the NFFF.
FDNY Commissioner Cassano meets with 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb committee at The Rock. Courtesy of the NFFF.

By Victor Stagnaro

When five firefighters from Colorado first gathered in the spring of 2005 to climb the stairwell of a local office building, they intended to do it for conditioning and camaraderie. They never thought that, within six years, they would be coordinating a series of nationwide climbs to honor the lives of the 343 firefighters from FDNY who died on September 11, 2001 and help their survivors heal. As we approach the 2012 9-11 Memorial Stair Climbs with the inaugural event at FDIC on April 20 at Lucas Oil Stadium, we look back at a recent event that explains why we climb. Click here to register for the FDIC climb and here to find other climbs this year.

Oren Bersagel-Briese stood on the rooftop of the Club Quarter's World Trade Center Hotel in December of 2011, a few yards from where 343 of his fire service brothers had made the ultimate sacrifice 10 years before. He and the four other members of the 9-11 Memorial Stair Climb Committee -- Scott Eckels, Brian Bush and Shawn Duncan from Colorado, and Josh Smith from Nashville -- had just completed their own personal climb to honor the fallen heroes of 9-11.  They had participated in climbs in Denver, Nashville, Indianapolis, Baltimore and Washington, DC, but not in New York.

The group was in New York City for a committee meeting with representatives from the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and FDNY to begin planning the 9-11 Memorial Stair Climbs for 2012. They had decided a few days before to assemble at 6:00 am and climb the hotel's stairwell 6.5 times to replicate the 110 stories of the Twin Towers before their meeting. 

As Bersagel-Briese and the others looked out over Ground Zero, he was confident that what he and his friends had started six years before was significant.

 "It really was everything that you would imagine it to be, including very emotional," said Bersagel-Briese."I'm not sure that anyone said anything to anyone else in the stair well, mostly because there wasn't a need to say anything at all. And then once we got to the top of the building for the last time, walked onto the roof, and looked down onto Ground Zero...wow."

The Steering Committee members headed to the FDNY Training Academy, known as"The Rock," for their strategic planning meeting. They wanted to keep the momentum going from the 2011 climbs that had collectively raised more than $150,000 for the survivors.  They hoped to develop an action plan to publicize the climbs and inspire more departments to participate."I was just looking forward to a productive meeting with a great group of people," said Bersagel-Briese. 

Upon their arrival at The Rock, they were surprised to be welcomed by FDNY Commissioner, Salvatore Cassano.  The Commissioner thanked each of the committee members for their hard work and efforts in coordinating the climbs. He explained that the money raised from the climbs in 2011 has been directed to the FDNY Counseling Services Unit which is responsible for family, relationship, career and peer-to-peer counseling for all members of FDNY and their families.  He also told them that without this funding, some of the services offered by the unit would no longer be provided.

"This money will help ensure that the members of FDNY and their families will continue to receive the outstanding support and counseling they need as they navigate through challenging times," said Commissioner Cassano. "The Counseling Unit has helped many people save their jobs, their marriages, their families and their lives."   Commissioner Cassano left the group to begin their meeting, but then returned to personally give each of them an FDNY 9-11 Tenth Anniversary Challenge Coin. 

"For the Commissioner to sit down with us and share what this money means to FDNY was a very powerful seal of approval and was very meaningful to all of us," said Josh Smith.

Knowing that their efforts would allow the Counseling Unit to continue providing essential services to the survivors motivated them even more. The group decided to divide the country into regions following the Federal Emergency Management Agency regions.  Each steering committee member will serve as a coordinator for two regions and offer logistical advice and support for all departments or groups interested in sponsoring a climb.

"I think there was some concern that after the 10th anniversary, people might not respond in the same way to participating in the climbs," said Smith."But now we can go back and tell others that we've seen the benefit of our efforts first hand.  It was very meaningful, and I think it will inspire more people to participate."

The 9-11 Memorial Stair Climbs are inspired by stair climbs that first took place in Denver in 2005. Bersagel-Briese, Eckels and others gathered at a high-rise in the city to climb 110 flights of stairs in memory of their 343 FDNY brothers. Word spread throughout the Denver area fire departments and by 2007, more than 100 firefighters wanted to participate. Interest continued to increase each year and similar climbs were organized in Albuquerque, Seattle, Nashville and Huntsville, AL.

In 2010, the group partnered with the NFFF to begin planning a series of national climbs to raise funds for the survivors of the 343 firefighters. They created a template that other departments could use to plan their own events. The Foundation hosted climbs at FDIC, CFSI, Firehouse Expo and FRI to generate more interest for a nation-wide climb on Sunday, September 11, 2011. By late summer, climbs were scheduled in more than 50 cities across the country. 

Knowing that what started out as an exercise to make a group of friends stronger and better firefighters has grown into a way to honor and remember the sacrifices of their brothers and help their families heal is very powerful for each of these men. It really drove home the importance of what they were doing.

"Most importantly, it confirmed that the stair climb program sits well with the members and families of the FDNY and is able to continue to assist their ongoing healing and support efforts," said Bersagel-Briese. 

For more information about coordinating a climb in your area, go to http://www.9-11stairclimb.com/

Victor Stagnaro joined the staff of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation in early 2010.  He serves as the Director of Fire Service Programs, which includes the Everyone Goes Home®, the Local Assistance State Teams and the Taking Care of Our Own programs and courses. Stagnaro's involvement with the NFFF dates back to 1998, when he served as the Incident Commander for the Memorial Weekend, a post he held for several years. He also assisted with the Foundation's New York Response Team on 9/11.  Prior to being hired by the NFFF, he worked for the Prince George's County Fire/Emergency Medical Services Department. In addition to having served as a firefighter and station officer, he has been a fire instructor, Public Information Officer, Battalion Chief, Executive Officer to the Fire Chief, Fire Marshal, and Operations Shift Chief. Stagnaro served as the Deputy Chief of Emergency Operations prior to his departure from the department in 2010. He authored a chapter in Fire Engineering's Handbook for Firefighter I and II on EMS in the Fire Service.

9/11 Memorial Stair Climb Steering Committee after ceremonial climb at WTC site. Courtesy of the NFFF.
9/11 Memorial Stair Climb Steering Committee after ceremonial climb at WTC site. Courtesy of the NFFF.

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