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Sharing 9/11 Firefighters' Legacy, One Flight At A Time

StairClimb4 -  Tim Tonge courtesy of Oren Bersagel-Briese.jpg
Timothy Tonge
Courtesy of Oren Bersagel-Briese
Colorado firefighters gather to climb stairs in a Denver building, in memory of the 343 members of the New York City Fire Department who died responding to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

This Saturday marks the passage of 20 years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Events to commemorate the anniversary are taking place across the state, including the 9/11 memorial stair climb at Red Rocks Amphitheatre. Since 2009, thousands of participants have made their way up and down the steps there to honor the firefighters who lost their lives at the World Trade Center. But that climb is not the only one in Colorado, nor is it the first. Back in 2004, just a few years after 9/11, a handful of firefighters gathered at a building in Denver to climb the stairs in a demonstration of camaraderie and support. It was one of the first memorial stair climbs in the country, and helped pave the way for dozens more such events around the nation.

Oren Bersagel-Briese was one of the firefighters who were part of the first climb. He is the division chief of training with the Castle Rock Fire and Rescue Department, and has made the climb every year since then. He spoke with Colorado Edition about the significance of climbing flights of stairs to remember the sacrifice of fallen first responders.

Interview Highlights
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Erin O’Toole: Let’s start with that very first stair climb in Denver back in 2004. How did that come together?

Oren Bersagel-Briese: A few of us were gathering about once a month, for camaraderie, training, just talking fire stuff, talking family stuff, just kind of being there for each other. And part of that was an element of physical training; that's obviously very important to the fire service. So, the first Saturday of every month, we had been gathering at a building in Denver and climbing stairs just for that purpose. And then as September rolled around, we kind of thought, wow, instead of just the first random Saturday, let's get together on the 11th. And then as we started climbing that day, we also realized, why don't we — instead of just stopping at an arbitrary set of stairs when we got tired — let's push and do 110 flights, which is the height of the World Trade Center.

A couple of us that gathered that day had personal connections to FDNY members that were killed. One of us actually knew an FDNY member, was close friends with one. And so, it kind of evolved pretty quickly that day. And, you know, when we finished, we didn't know that that would turn into an event that would transcend time. But we were really proud and felt really good about what we had done that morning.

What was interesting is you did it a couple of years, and then it got a little bigger. You had a kind of waiting list of people wanting to do that climb. Talk about that and what happened.  

So, the second year that we gathered, we had invited a few other folks — there were 12 of us that second year. The third year, then the word got out and we had 250 people. And then the fourth year is when we started to limit it. We knew that the interest had gained a momentum of its own among the firefighting community. And the building certainly couldn't support just an endless number of folks. So, again, we just decided we needed to limit the amount of people that were climbing. And instead of being random with that number, we realized that 343 was the right number. That was a number of FDNY members killed on 9/11. So, every year since then, we've completed or filled up our registration of 343 firefighters climbing.

And the decision was made then to add a second climb, the one at Red Rocks. Did you have a hand in helping to set that up?

Backhanded, potentially. Our climb had filled up and the folks that ended up starting up at Red Rocks did so because they really wanted to continue to climb and needed a space to do that. So, the first year that they did it, they put it together in a real short time frame. That climb is a little bit different than ours, in two regards. One, is it's at an outdoor amphitheater versus in a building. And then, of course, theirs also is open to the public, not just firefighters only. So, they see tremendous turnout every year. We kind of work together a little bit, but they really got something special going over there for sure.

StairClimb2 by Tim Tonge - courtesy of Oren Bersagel-Briese.jpg
Timothy Tonge
Courtesy of Oren Bersagel-Briese
A firefighter, carrying full gear, ascends a flight of stairs in Denver as part of a 9/11 memorial stair climb.

Why is it important for firefighters to have their own stair climb, the one that happens in the Denver building?

I think what's important about it is that it most directly emulates some of what happened on 9/11. Of course, I'm not going to pretend to suggest that we can emulate what their experience was like that day. But by climbing in a building and by climbing with other firefighters, what we actually end up doing is making it almost a memorial meets training event, meets physical fitness, meets an incident command structure. It's something that, you know, we just can't do with the public.

I'll tell you, personally, there's not a lot of other people I'd rather spend a day with than other firefighters. It was an experience that if you were a firefighter in 2001, obviously you won't forget what that felt like that day. But just who you want to be surrounded with that day are people that that you don't have to explain things to sometimes. And that's what's special for us. You can just look at each other and we know why we’re there, what we're doing it for and who we want to be around.

I'm wondering what the atmosphere is like during the Denver building climb. What do you think about when you're making that climb?

It's a lot of introspection. We ask our climbers, and then we also do the same as organizers when we get the opportunity to do the climb, to be focused on each other, but also to be thinking about what might happen if we were to encounter a fire as we got higher into a building, to sort of think about what that would be like. The stairs are actually pretty quiet. During the climb, when you have 343 people in a stairwell, the building that we do it in — we're able to climb 55 floors in one time. So we do that twice. What you hear is a pretty steady drumbeat of footsteps up the metal stairs all the way to the top. And really, the only noises outside of that are encouragement from the building tenants or from each other, just supporting each other through the climb. It's not easy, and we don't have anything to do at the end. Unlike Sept. 11, where they were saving lives and fighting fire, we don't have anything to do at the end. Except remember.

When it comes to the Red Rocks climb, what are the reasons people have for coming?

I know that, for example, there's a middle school from Douglas County that generally comes out and brings almost their entire middle school population and does it as a field trip. And for them, it's obviously about being able to share the story and pass on the history lesson to their students. And I think for other folks, we're getting, this year, the 20th anniversary as we get further away from Sept. 11. That was kind of a seminal moment in a lot of our lives. I think it's a way to connect back to that, and to remember how we all felt.

Jamie Kraus
Courtesy of Oren Bersagel-Briese
A set of 343 identification tags, one for each of the FDNY firefighters who died on Sept. 11. They're created and given out to firefighters doing the stair climb in Denver to carry with them as they climb.

I think that one thing that is really good about the stair climb is it gives us a tangible way to connect to what happened on Sept. 11, versus standing around at a memorial event — which certainly has its own merits. But being able to physically do something — to sweat and to carry the tag of an FDNY firefighter that everybody carries — you make a personal connection. And I think those are important things certainly today, and as we move forward.

This February, a large piece that was recovered from Ground Zero made its way to Colorado. It's now part of a special memorial at the Castle Rock Public Safety Training Facility. And you were a huge part of the efforts to get it here. Why did you feel it was important to bring it here?

We actually were contacted through the stair climb program by the folks that organized the Erie, Pennsylvania 9/11 memorial. And they had some extra steel left over from their memorial creation. And with the steel that comes from the World Trade Center, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey requires that it's not in private collection, that it be displayed publicly. So they reached out and we were able to work with them to get the steel out here to Castle Rock. And, yeah, it took a little bit of time to find the right place and the right way to display that. A 350-pound piece of steel is not very easy to move around, but it was important for us.

The town of Castle Rock and the Castle Rock Fire and Rescue Department have been extremely, extremely supportive of the stair climb program and of generally remembering 9/11 and what's transpired since then. And so when we were able to get it put into place, it's at our training center right now. It serves two functions there. One, of course, is that it's available for the public to come and look at. And, you know, I mentioned earlier with the with the stair climb being a tangible thing that you can do, this is a tangible thing that you can go touch. You can put your hands on it in and make a connection and feel what that steel felt like and what it may have been part of.

And then the other thing — it being at our public safety training center, where both the Castle Rock police and the fire department have our training offices — it serves as a is a point of inspiration and remembrance for us as we head out onto the drill grounds or into the classrooms about why and what we do.

This year marks a pretty significant milestone — 20 years since the attacks. What is the lasting impact of 9/11 for you, personally, and for the firefighter community? What will you be thinking about on Sept. 11?

For the fire department community as a whole, 9/11 changed our profession, period. It changed the way that we operate. It changed the way that we think through things strategically and tactically. And while not every city, including ours, has high rises, the lessons learned from that day — from incident command to accountability to other things — have translated and transcended every organizational level in every geographic area. Beyond that, the camaraderie has always existed in the fire service; the brotherhood and sisterhood that is the fire department makes it a very special place to be. And that's further emphasized with the events of 9/11 and what's happened since then.

I think that as we climb this year, it becomes more and more important to acknowledge the sacrifice that the families have made, that they continue to make today. Not only what the FDNY members heroically did on Sept. 11, but that their legacies continue to be shared and their stories continue to be told. You know, I have a middle schooler and an elementary school kid at home, and neither of them, of course, were alive on Sept. 11. But they know the names of some of the folks and they know the stories of what happened. And we continue to share that stuff. And I think that becomes our mission — as we get older and as time passes, is to ensure that we're able to pass on that information, that we're able to tell the stories of heroism, that we're able to continue to emphasize the legacies of the FDNY members and their families.

This year, three memorial stair climbs will be held in Colorado, including the climb at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, which is open to the public, although the number of participants is limited this year because of the pandemic. Money raised through memorial stair climb events helps fund programs that support families of local firefighters through the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. Nearly 40 stair climbs will take place around the country this weekend to commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

As host of KUNC's Colorado Edition, I work closely with our producers and reporters to bring context and diverse perspectives to the important issues of the day. And because life is best when it's a balance of work and play, I love finding stories that highlight culture, music, the outdoors, and anything that makes Colorado such a great place to live.