EL PASO – The El Paso Fire Department thundered into downtown in the waking moments of Sept. 11, 2011 in full turnout gear and 80-pound tanks on their backs.
But there was no fire at the 21-story Wells Fargo building on Main Street. Instead, they reflected on the memory of the firefighters who lost their lives 10 years ago during the attacks on the World Trade Center.
“Today is the first year that we’re hosting this memorial stair climb. It’s obviously 9/11 and we’ve never had something like this in El Paso,” said volunteer firefighter Lieutenant Steven Wherrey. “The closest stair climb we have is in Dallas, so we want to bring in something close to home in memory of our fallen brothers.”
The EPFD organized a stair climb at El Paso’s tallest building where roughly 130 men and women escalated the building five times. They then added five more flights of stairs to equal the height of the 110-story twin towers that fell in New York City.
As they were about to embark on the climb, each group of three to six participants was asked to ring a bell that honored the fallen firefighters and law enforcement officers who lost their lives. In front of the bell was a memorial picture and each person was given a picture and a name of a person who fell in the attacks.
Firefighters from Las Cruces, Clint, West Valley (Anthony, TX and NM area) and Santa Teresa also joined. But the climb wasn’t only meant for firefighters. Local policeman, DPS workers and the county sheriff department also joined in.
Patrolman Richard Ortega was in the first group to enter the stairwell and talked about the relationship emergency services share.
“Firefighters do it, but a lot of police officers fell, too. Police departments and the fire departments are very close together. Without each other, we wouldn’t succeed,” Ortega said. “It’s by working together that we’re able to create a unified front in order to protect our citizens and it was officers and firefighters that had to run up and down those stairs. So in memory of them, I’m going up and down some stairs.”
Prior to their climb, the men and women prepared by listening to patriotic music such as Neil Diamond’s America, Alan Jackson’s Where Were You, and others. They shared a moment of silence, pledged to the American flag and entered the building at precisely 8:50 a.m., the eastern time the first plane hit the north tower in New York City.
As they entered the stairwell each time, a crowd of around 30 people, mainly friends and family of the firefighters making the climb, watched and applauded the men. One firefighter even took the extra mile when he placed an American flag on his back, given to him by a retired firefighter who visited and purchased one at ground zero in New York City.
The climb was excruciating for some, however. A team from the Clint Fire Department had to stop after their second repetition as one of the men was about to collapse. The team was wearing their full gear but took it off at that moment and later put it on in the last two climbs.
At 9:59 a.m., the firefighters stopped and sounded their emergency response buttons to mark when the first tower, the southern one, went down. They had another moment of silence for a minute then proceeded with their climb.
Detention officer Ana Sanchez said the message she hopes to send is to continue fighting to the end.
“The first two were bad but after that, my legs were numb so I didn’t feel them,” Sanchez said. “We all stayed together as one and we all finished as one.”
Gabriel Martinez, a local firefighter, was in the first group that finished the climb. He said he felt for the firefighters who lost their lives because as a service man, it’s their job to make sacrifices, too.
“It was tough. I couldn’t imagine how it would fell in a real life situation where actual lives are on the line,” Martinez said. “In this situation, we’re just walking up stairs with equipment but we’re not in any real danger.”