On a warm Sunday morning in September, Lt. Justin Brown with the Aurora Fire Rescue is practicing stair climbing in full gear one last time before the annual 9/11 stair climb.
“It's all about how you prepare for it,” he said after walking the last round of six flights in a parking garage near the University of Colorado Hospital. “There's some discomfort, but it's good discomfort, if you can believe that.”
On the 20th anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center, Brown will be one of 343 Colorado firefighters who will climb 110 flights of stairs. The numbers are significant — 343 New York City Fire Department first responders died at Ground Zero that day trying to climb the 110 flights of stairs to save people during an unimaginable event.
The firefighters will climb the stairs at 1801 California St. in downtown Denver. It’s an office building — the second tallest one in the city. They start on the loading dock and climb 55 flights, twice, using a freight elevator to go down in between rounds.
They wear full gear that weighs upward of 85 pounds including their jackets and pants. It’s hot and muggy in the stairwell with so many people and so much physical exertion.
Before the climb, the firefighters choose a badge with the photo and name of one of the firefighters who died.
“Get in that stairwell and that's when it's time to go and you need to pace yourself,” Brown said “You need to think about the person you're climbing for. You need to clear your mind.”
Brown has climbed every year since 2007. He finished training as a firefighter in December 2001. If anything, the events of 9/11 solidified his commitment to being a first responder. The climb reminds him of his commitment.
“It re-establishes that oath, it’s kinda like reestablishing your marriage vows you know every once in a while,” he said. “It's just a reminder and a good yearly reminder of why I chose this job.”
The climb started in Denver in 2005 by a small group of firefighters who were training together every month. Then September rolled around, and they decided to climb on the anniversary of 9/11.
“The mission of the FDNY members on September 11th was to climb those stairs while rescuing people and to potentially fight fire when they got up in the upper floors,” said Oren Bersagel-Briese, division chief of training for the Castlerock fire and rescue department. “That's a level of physical exertion that we can't even remotely comprehend, but the climb is not easy, it's meant to make you remember some of the efforts that they went through.”
The climb has grown every year since. Now firefighters from across the country host climbs in office buildings, outdoor recreation areas and even at local fitness centers on stair climber machines. Nearly 50 firefighters participate each year from the Aurora Department alone, which Brown said is a point of pride for him and the department.
“Whenever there's a firefighter loss of life, we all feel it,” said Bersagel-Briese, who is a fourth-generation firefighter. “On a day like September 11th that impacted all of us to our core, with us in the fire service, it's even a more personal sense of loss, I think.”
For Liz Dowdell, the loss is very personal. Her uncle, Lt. Kevin Dowdell with the New York City Fire Department died on 9/11. She was 17 when it happened.
“People can relate on just worrying about a loved one in any situation. That they might be in danger, or just hoping that people are safe, but sharing that with the world was kind of a different experience,” she said. “It's this national thing that holds significance for a lot of people in a lot of different ways, but it's also very personal.”
Today, the climb is a chance to share the story of her uncle with her kids, her family and her community.
“It's a hard climb — just witnessing that commitment and witnessing firefighters do that, and people in the community do it,” she said. “It's a nice way to teach our kids kind of what happened and the significance of the day and how many people it impacted.”
Her cousin, Lt. Dowdell’s youngest son, is now a firefighter in New York. The firefighting community is strong and tight-knit. She and her family do a 9/11 climb at Red Rocks every year where they’ve met local firefighters and other families.
For firefighters, the stair climb offers a way to engage with a personal sense of loss in a way that a ceremony might not provide.
“It's a way to physically represent and uphold how we say never to forget,” Bersagel-Briese said. “You know the further we get away from the events of September 11th, the more it's important to share the stories of what those guys did on that day and to share the stories of the sacrifices their families have made since then.”
What those first responders did on September 11th is what every firefighter is prepared to do when they start their shift. It’s about laying down their lives for the people who need them.
“Being a firefighter lines up with that idea that if it comes down to it and there's a person in that window on the third floor and there's smoke billowing out around them, I'm going to get up there and I'm going to get to them.”
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Lieutenant Justin Brown is with the Aurora Police Department. Lt. Brown is with the Aurora Fire Rescue. The article has since been corrected.