As firefighters climbed the stairs at Belmont Towers on Saturday, images of the firefighters who died on Sept. 11, 2001, in New York City filled their sight. The sounds of New York City Fire Department dispatch calls from that fateful day permeated the stairwell.
It was a day of mourning as firefighters and area residents remembered the terrorist attacks two decades ago that killed in total 2,977 people, including 343 firefighters.
Muslim militants from Al-Qaida hijacked four commercial flights that morning, crashing jets into each of the twin towers at the World Trade Center in New York City and one into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Passengers on the fourth flight managed to divert the plane from the terrorist’s possible target in Washington, D.C. The jet crashed in rural Pennsylvania.
“This is a very somber day in our history, but I believe it is one that we must, as commonly quoted about this day, never forget,” said Parsons Fire Chief Kenny Ward.
About 25 firefighters honored the lives lost by climbing the stairs of the apartment building 15 times to the seventh floor and once to the fifth floor. Firefighters from Parsons, Neosho Township, Altamont, Labette Fire District No. 9 and Neodesha departments, among others, came to the event.
“We were hoping for a bigger setup, but maybe next year,” said Parsons Battalion Chief Matt Claibourn. He added that he thought COVID-19 may have played a role in fewer people signing up. Many cities canceled stair climb events this year because of the pandemic, he said.
The participants’ route Saturday up the stairs signified the 110 flights of stairs firefighters attempted to climb to save people in the World Trade Center during the attacks.
“It’s our intent to show respect to those that day who didn’t make it home to their family and friends,” Ward said.
It was hard work, but firefighters thought it their duty to pay respects.
“I wasn’t alive during 9/11. I wasn’t born yet. I’m a little bit too young for them to be my brothers, but those were my fathers,” said Dylan Lowry, a member of the Hutchinson Community College Fire Science program. “They went and climbed, and so to be able to do it is a good thing for me.”
In addition, the event honored a local firefighter who passed away in April: Jarold “Jed” Head. He was a volunteer for the Neosho Township Fire Department. The registration fees the firefighters paid to participate in the event as well as T-shirt sales benefited a scholarship in his honor. The scholarships will assist area firefighters by covering various training expenses.
“It’s not just about my dad. I mean he’s great and we miss him and he’s dearly missed, especially by the fire community, but he loved volunteering for these stair climbs when they were in Wichita,” said Jed’s daughter, Amanda Head.
Amanda said her father’s loss was still fresh for the family. She said it meant a lot to see the community honor Jed on Saturday.
“I am feeling very humbled, very honored, of course. Still bittersweet because my dad volunteered at these things all the time when they were in Wichita,” she said. “… It’s bittersweet because he would have been so delighted.”
Amanda said her father gave his all as a firefighter.
“He gave his time to the community like it was nothing,” she said. “Anytime that pager went off, boom, he was out the door. It didn’t matter what he was doing. He could’ve been at work, he could’ve been hanging in the fields, he could’ve been sitting with us, having a meal with the family and have to get up and go.”
She said she hopes the community can have a memorial stair climb every year to bring people together.
“I really do, because we forget,” she said. “We say we’ll never forget, but sometimes we forget because we forget to treat our fellow brother and sister with kindness and compassion and humanity and decency. We’ve forgotten how to do that. We may have not forgotten about 9/11, but we’ve forgotten how to do that.”
Brandon Merz, a firefighter for the Labette Fire District No. 9 for about seven years, finished the stair climb first. He said he was a little tired but feeling good after his finish.
“It (shows) our gratitude for what they do, what we all do, brotherhood,” he said.
Firefighters wore full gear and some even carried hoses as they climbed the stairs. Some paused to get a drink of water and rest in the middle of the climb. One hose they carried included the names of the 343 firefighters killed on 9/11.
At the end of the climb, firefighters rang the bell and read off the name of the firefighter who they climbed for.
Parsons firefighter Seth Jones said the stair climb paid tribute to the firefighters before him who put their lives on the line and “made the ultimate sacrifice.”
“I think it’s a reminder to us to do the same, and that’s what’s expected for us out of our community, too, the expectations with them,” Jones said. “I definitely think it’s a cool little tribute, give back to those firemen.”
Claibourn said the firefighters worked together Saturday to finish the climb.
“Well, everybody starts out, they want to do everything by themselves, and then they realize that it’s a team effort,” he said.