McALLEN — “When you’re tired and you can’t take one more step, look down at that lanyard, look at that picture and remember why it is that we’re climbing,” were the words of motivation 343 people, some dressed in athletic clothes, others in bunker gear, received before ascending 110 flights of stairs to mark the 17th anniversary of 9/11.
Sunday’s fifth annual McAllen Stair Climb was one of dozens of events held across the country to pay tribute to the 343 firefighters who died responding to the World Trade Center during the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
When 24-year-old Alexandra Gonzalez, a firefighter with the San Diego Volunteer Fire Department, got tired of climbing with the nearly 70 pound pants, jacket, boots, air pack and helmet weighing her down, she looked at the image of 37-year-old Kevin Bracken. The eight-year veteran of the New York City Fire Department died responding to the South Tower, and like Gonzalez, his father had been a volunteer firefighter.
The McAllen Stair Climb is the only 9/11 memorial stair climb south of San Antonio, drawing participants like Gonzalez as far as Duval County for the simple, noble purpose of “paying respect,” or as McAllen firefighter Robert Delgado, 27, said, “putting yourself in the shoes of those who lost their lives.”
Firefighters closer to home — like those from the McAllen, Pharr, Edinburg, Alton, Rio Grande City and Brownsville departments — as well as EMTs, police, Border Patrol employees and members of the public, all took part in the event, climbing the 17-story Neuhaus Tower on South 10th Street six and half a times, or a total of 110 stories, the number of floors in the World Trade Center buildings.
Each participant wore a tag with the name and photograph of one of the fallen firefighters whose memory they honored. The tags, explained McAllen Stair Climb Director Mark Zamora, a 10-year veteran of the McAllen Fire Department, resemble the personal accountability system tags firefighters carry with them to a scene, wearing one and giving the other to their incident commander as a way of tracking their whereabouts.
After they completed the 110 flights of stairs, each participant pinned their tag to a board, putting in perspective the number of firefighters that lost their life 17 years ago.
“Can you imagine giving your life for the person down the street who doesn’t even acknowledge you, (and doing so) without even thinking,” said Amanda Knise, 37, of Raymondville of the sacrifice made by first responders across the nation.
Knise, who first participated in last year’s climb, was a freshman in college in San Antonio on 9/11 and still remembers hearing the news about the terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania.
“I remember turning on the news and watching it unfold,” she said. “I was living with my roommate and her husband, who was in the Air Force, and he was quick to get all his stuff together and get to the base. It brought it closer to home because somebody I knew was so quick to act after hearing our country was under attack.”
Zamora, the event’s director, was a senior in high school Sept. 11, 2001 and said one of his motivations in organizing the event is to keep the memory of those who lost their lives alive for younger generations.
“We’re getting to a point in the future where people don’t know what life was like before 9/11,” he said. “I want this day to be special, not just another day.”