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CHARLOTTE – Imagine the stress of hauling 50 pounds worth of fire-protective boots, a turnout coat, bunker pants, a self-contained breathing apparatus and a helmet as you climb up a seemingly endless 110 flights of stairs.
Now imagine exerting all that energy as smoke covers your face and streams of people push past you in a desperate dash to escape a blazing fire.
For 20 local firefighters, that scenario is one they kept in mind as they donned their turnout gear and ascended Charlotte’s Duke Energy Center building on Sept. 7 as part of the third annual 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb.
Hosted by the Charlotte Firefighters Association, the event was organized to honor first responders who gave their lives during the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
As part of the event, participants climbed a total of 110 floors, the number equal to the height of each of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers. Though with the Duke Energy building topping out at 50 stories, participants had to fully ascend the building twice, followed by a trip up 10 more flights, before finishing the memorial climb.
Climbers included 343 firefighters, 60 law enforcement personnel and 10 EMS personnel, as well as additional spots opened to allow for a total of 700 climbers. According to the CFA’s website, the makeup and numbers of climbers were selected to represent the first responders lost during the terrorist attacks.
Britt Blackmon, assistant training officer for the Lancaster County Fire Service, was one of 14 local firefighters to climb as a group during the event, though six other local firefighters joined with other groups to climb the building.
At times the climb was grueling, Blackmon said, punctuated only twice by an escalator ride back down to the lobby to continue the climb. His group finished the climb in about one hour and 45 minutes.
“We did it with full turnout gear on, with our apparatus, helmets, the whole nine yards,” Blackmon said. “Your thighs are hurting for sure, but we all got through it.”
His group, a mixture of volunteers and paid county fire service employees, assembled at the beginning of the event and were assigned a team leader. They were then given the names of their fallen brethren who they would represent during the climb.
“We picked a bag and inside were badges representing firemen who passed away on 9/11,” he said. “We took the badges and put them on our turnout gear and a couple of us had them on our helmets. The badge gave us their names and the company they were with.”
Blackmon represented Henry Miller, Jr., 52, who worked with the New York Fire Department’s Ladder Company No. 105 in Brooklyn.
According to Long Island Newsday, the Massapequa, N.Y., resident was an avid surfer, skier and family man, who responded to the Twin Towers on the morning of Sept. 11. His company’s fire truck was eventually found crushed under debris at a nearby Marriott hotel, though his body was never found, Newsday reported.
“All of us had different guys. It was a very humbling experience to see what all they went through,” he said. “There were also police and EMS represented there because it was not just firefighters who passed away that day.”
Blackmon hopes to delve further into Miller’s life to learn more about him and his heroic acts that day.
“I definitely will research him and find out what he did and what his background was,” he said.
Making the climbing experience even more memorable was sharing it with fellow emergency responders from throughout the Carolinas, he said.
“It was pretty neat to be there with firefighters from all around North and South Carolina,” he said. “This was my first time doing it, but I will absolutely do it again next year.”
Stopping occasionally to wipe sweat from his brow and read stories of the fallen 9/11 firefighters posted at each story of the Duke Energy building was Lancaster County firefighter Ken Walters.
As a captain overseeing the county’s newest 10 paid firefighters and a 14-year volunteer with the Kershaw Volunteer Fire Department, Walters joined Blackmon’s group during the climb.
“It was an honor and a privilege to do it in memory of the men who made the ultimate sacrifice,” Walters said.
He recalled reading a variety of tales of accomplishment, adversity and tragedy during the climb, all of which painted a picture about what first responders faced on that morning 12 years ago.
“There were stories about where something happened or which department made it to which floor. We would stop and read them all,” Walters said. “There was one guy climbing with us who was from New York and was there when it happened. He’s down here now and he participated and was telling stories about that day. It was just crazy to hear those stories.”
One of the many posted stories made an indelible mark on Walters.
“One of the departments had parked three blocks away from the World Trade Center and still made it to the 38th floor and that was crazy to hear,” he said. “Three blocks in New York is a pretty good distance amongst all the traffic and congestion and chaos, and they still made it up to that level. Their dedication was unreal. I get goosebumps just talking about it.”
Though the memorial climb was hard, Walters said it wasn’t even close to what actually happened that day.
“When you’re there you realize that we totally underestimated how hard it is,” he said. “We were walking it, though they were running it and they were facing opposition. It was a challenge for us, but those guys had their adrenaline pumping and were facing opposition from smoke and all sorts of things.”
Pinned to Walters’ uniform during the event was a badge featuring the name and likeness of Robert McPadden, a member of the NYFD’s Engine Company 23 in Manhattan who died on 9/11.
A New York Times article from Jan. 22, 2002 illuminated the brighter points of McPadden’s life, from his adeptness at answering “Jeopardy!” questions to his master’s degree in criminal justice to his willingness to be known as “Fireman Bob.”
With such significance attached to the climb, Walters hopes to attend again next year.
“The Charlotte Fire Department did a tremendous job. It was challenging and it was hard, but we tried to do what we could to remember them,” Walters said. “It was awesome, outstanding and the guys from Lancaster County did a great job.”
Below are the Lancaster County firefighters who climbed as a group during the 3rd annual Charlotte Firefighters’ 9-11 Memorial Stair Climb on Saturday, Sept. 7:
– Britt Blackmon – assistant Training Officer, Lancaster County Fire Service; also lieutenant / training officer with Flat Creek Volunteer Fire Department
– Ken Walters – captain, Lancaster County Fire Service; also assistant chief / training officer with Kershaw Fire Department
– Phillip Pegram – lieutenant, Lancaster County Fire Service; also lieutenant with McDonald Green Fire Volunteer Department
– Mick Tucker – firefighter, Lancaster County Fire Service; also a member with McDonald Green Volunteer Fire Department
– Nathan Wall – firefighter, Lancaster County Fire Service; also a member of McDonald Green Volunteer Fire Department
– Slawomir Piotrowski – firefighter, Lancaster County Fire Service; also a member of Indian Land Volunteer Fire Department
– Luis Matute – Scavo – firefighter, Lancaster County Fire Service; also a member of Pleasant Valley Volunteer Fire Department
– Brett Lucas – firefighter, Lancaster County Fire Service; also a member Kershaw Volunteer Fire Department
– Nicholas Cannone – firefighter, Pleasant Valley Volunteer Fire Department
– Jason Faile – member of Kershaw Volunteer Fire Department
– Stuart Barfield – member of Kershaw Volunteer Fire Department
– Tyler Denkins – firefighter, Kershaw Volunteer Fire Department
– Doug Spinks – captain, Lancaster County Fire Service; also lieutenant with Kershaw Volunteer Fire Department
Here are other firefighters from the county who climbed in their own groups during the event:
– Greg Nicholson – captain, Charlotte Fire Department; also Chief with Pleasant Valley Volunteer Fire Department
– Joe Pezzuti – Volunteer firefighter, Lancaster County Fire Service; also a member of Indian Land Volunteer Fire Department
– Cody Whiteside – firefighter, Fort Mill Fire Department; also a member of Pleasant Valley Volunteer Fire Department
– Ryan Creed – captain, Charlotte Fire Department; also assistant chief of Pleasant Valley Volunteer Fire Department
– Glyn Hasty – captain, Charlotte Fire Department; also a member of Indian Land Volunteer Fire Department
– Raymond Griffin – chief of Indian Land Volunteer Fire Department
Contact reporter Chris Sardelli at (803) 416-8416