Everyone has their own way of honoring and remembering. For firefighters, the way to honor those who lost their lives during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks is by climbing stairs.
In remembrance of the 343 firefighters who died at the World Trade Center on 9/11, hundreds of Fairbanksans summited the equivalent of 110 flights of stairs in the Carlson Center on Saturday morning during the first Great Alaskan 9/11 Stair Climb.
The University of Alaska Fairbanks Fire Department and the Tanana Valley Chapter of the Alaska State Firefighters Association organized the climb, which was held 20 years to the day when hijacked commercial airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center as well as the Pentagon. Climbers could tackle the stairs either as individuals or in teams, and proceeds from the event went to the Alaska State Fallen Firefighters Fund.
Similar events are held across the country, yet this is a first — but not a last — for Fairbanks.
“This year we wanted to bring the Fairbanks North Star community together along with first responders and start a new tradition of remembrance together of 9/11,” said University Fire Department Captain Dave Mattox. The goal was to come together in recognition of the 20th anniversary of “that terrible day,” and to remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice, he said.
“As terrible and traumatizing as those events were, they also showed the world how America is still the home of the brave,” Mattox said, referring to those who willingly gave their own lives in an effort to save others. The stair climbing tradition is a way of paying homage to the first responders who climbed 110 flights of stairs in an effort to rescue trapped victims. “They did it for us, and today we do it for them,” Mattox said.
He explained that the purpose of events such as the stair climb is to never forget how the events of 9/11 changed the world and, in particular, the lives of those who lost loved ones.
“Twenty years ago today, the world as we knew it changed,” Fairbanks Fire Chief Tod Chambers said. This was particularly true for first responders. Even thousands of miles away, “We felt that loss,” he said. This is because, despite drastic differences in locale, the motivation of first responders across the country and world is the same: to help others. “The environment might be different, the population may be bigger, but the job is still the same job — you serve the community,” Chambers said.
Along those lines, not all change was for the worse. “The most significant impact, though, is how it brought us together,” Chambers said. He explained that Interior fire departments now collaborate in a way they did not before. “Together, as a group, we’re much stronger than as individuals.” That, in turn, benefits communities.
David Halbrooks, Fort Wainwright deputy fire chief, brought 9/11 artifacts to display, including a shirt worn by a firefighter with the New York Fire Department. The artifacts were donated by his great uncle, who served with the NYFD. Halbrooks said that his uncle wanted to provide artifacts to ensure that they are shared with the “widest audience possible.”
Halbrooks himself was working as fire captain 20 years ago at Fort Wainwright on 9/11 when his wife called, “crying on the phone, and I had no idea what was going on,” he said. “It reaches out to all of us,” Halbrooks recalled of that day. The events were especially impactful for Halbrooks because two uncles and a great-uncle served with the NYFD. “It just reaches to the core of each firefighter, probably even a little more personal when you know someone.”
As to what the Great Alaskan 9/11 Stair Climb means to him as a first responder, Halbrooks explained that it is a way of keeping the heroism of those who gave their lives on 9/11 alive.
“They use the term ‘never forget,’ and that’s definitely what it does,” he said. “This calls us to remember a time when a lot of others sacrificed.”