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Firefighters join solemn 9/11 stair climb

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‘No one realizes what they did and what they went through that day’

By Kayla Vaughn

Eighteen Lancaster County firefighters and three guests climbed 110 flights of stairs at the Duke Energy Building in Uptown Charlotte on Saturday during the annual 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb.
They were among 714 climbers who raised $21,000 for the families of New York firefighters who died in the attack on the 110-story World Trade Center.
“It is an emotional climb,” said Butch Ghent, chief of McDonald Green Volunteer Fire Department. “We’re climbing for those firefighters that died in New York and you just get caught up in the excitement of the climb and the ceremonies that go along with it.”
Each climber carried a badge with a photo and the name of a firefighter, police officer or paramedic who died on 9/11.
Many of the firefighters chose to climb in full turnout gear as a sign of respect.
“We’ll never get the logistics of it because you don’t have the fire and the smoke,” said Ken Walters, operations captain for Lancaster County Fire Services. “If you think about it, what they did is just unreal.”
The stair climb holds a special meaning for Walters, whose son passed away in 2005. Every year he stops on the floor that represents the age his son would be today and says a prayer.
“I climb for him because he got me into the fire service,” Walters said.
Somber faces and teary eyes were abundant among the hundreds of people present during the opening ceremony at 8 a.m. All fell silent as the recorded voices of New York first responders carried across Uptown. Followed by a bagpipe-and-drum rendition of  “Amazing Grace,” those voices set the tone for the climb participants were about to make.
Newcomers to the stair climb, Paul Blas with Lancaster County Fire Services and Brent Caldwell with Kershaw Volunteer Fire Department both said it was an incredible experience.
Eighteen-year old Caldwell said he heard from all of the other climbers how special the event was and wanted to do something to remember those firefighters who lost their lives.
“They made the ultimate sacrifice,” he said, “and we lost them all at one time. We climbed those 110, but it’s different when you know you get to come back down.”
Blas said it helped him to realize how much he takes for granted. “A lot of people don’t see what we do,” he said, “and no one realizes what they did and what they went through that day.”
A family event, the stair climb lasted from 8-3 p.m. and had plenty for spectators to do while waiting on teams to make their way back down, including bounce houses, face painting, food and more.
It took both Lancaster teams around three hours to finish their climb. Some spectators waited patiently to cheer on the climbers as they finished.
“When the elevator doors open, you can hear them clapping and cheering you on,” said Philip Pegram, who works for Lancaster County Fire Services and volunteers for McDonald Green VFD. “You can’t hear anything else but that clapping and the bell.”
Each climber rings a large silver bell before making his or her way up the stairs while stating the name of the fallen first responder they are climbing for.
Walters, 51, has been climbing for four years and says the stair climb gets more difficult the older he gets.
“It gets harder every year, but the meaning and why we do it stays the same,” he said. “They weren’t thinking about their own lives, just trying to help people.”

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Follow Kayla Vaughn on Twitter @kaybvaughn or contact her at (803) 283-1155.