While much of the city still slept, or sat sipping their coffee, over 100 northern Arizona residents prepared to climb an estimated 110 flights of stairs early Saturday morning.
The annual event, held at the Walkup Skydome on the Northern Arizona University campus, is in honor of the first responders who died during the September 11, 2001, attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people, including 214 emergency workers.
And many of those who took part in Saturday's 9/11 Tower Challenge were first responders themselves.
Several members of the Highlands Fire District climbed the 2,071-step route through the Walkup Skydome on the Northern Arizona University campus, the same number of stairs that were in the World Trade Center, and that firefighters and first responders rushed up during the attack.
This was not the first time Highlands Fire District engineer and paramedic Eric Reed had taken part in the event. Reed completed the climb decked nearly in his full fire gear weighing close to 50 pounds.
“My thought is, the guys going up the towers didn’t get to choose what they wore,” Reed said.
The challenge has taken place at the Skydome for at least the past six years, but this time the event comes as the nation reflects on the 20th anniversary of the attacks, the withdraw from Afghanistan and as the country continues to struggle with daily tragedy associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gallery: Participants climb Walkup Skydome as part of 9/11 Tower Challenge
Participants in the 9/11 Tower Challenge climbed a total of 2071 to represent the 110 floors of the World Trade Center on Saturday in the Walkup Skydome. Among the group of participants were firefighters, students, and Northern Arizona University President José Luis Cruz Rivera.
Before the climb began, participants gathered in the end zone to hear remarks from some of those connected to the tragedy, and watch a short video.
Each wearing a lanyard with the face and name of a first responder who was killed, participants then lined up before the first flight of stairs. Music kicked in with Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” and the journey up, down and eventually around the venue began.
Of those in attendance, almost a third were members of the Reserve Officers' Training Corps at NAU, most of whom aged between 18 and 19, were not born at the time of the September 11 attacks.
Still, NAU sophomore and member of the Airforce ROTC John Michael Jaro said he and his fellow ROTC members wanted to come out and take part to honor those who had given their lives 20 years ago.
“It was difficult but worth it for everything they did for our country that day,” Jaro said just after climbing the final flight of stairs.
While many climbed, Highlands Fire Department Battalion Chief Mitch Lopez stood from the top of the stadium seats and watched.
Lopez said this was the first time in several years he would not be completing the stair climb, only because he was on duty and had to be ready to run out to his truck and speed off if he got a call.
Even so, Lopez said he still wanted to be there for the event.
Lopez said he was 17 sitting in drivers education class at Flagstaff High School when 9/11 occurred. There was a TV on in the classroom and although class continued most students and the teachers attention was on the news.
But Saturday morning as he watched the many 18- and 19-year-olds climbing through the arena, Lopez said he thinks events such as the stair climb might take on more importance as the years pass by.
“I like seeing that there are kids doing this today that weren’t born yet. I hope for them it’s more than just an exercise event,” Lopez said. “For a lot of us, it really means something. We have friends and family that have died and suffered, and so it means a lot to us; it’s an emotional event. Versus someone who maybe wasn’t born, you’re just hearing anecdotally of a friend or a family member’s experiences. It’s kind of like us listening about Pearl Harbor when we were kids.”
Lopez said his kids are young, the oldest only being 14, but he doesn’t worry about them not recognizing the sacrifice first responders made on 9/11 in the same way, in part because he has been coming to take part in the stair walk, or other events honoring first responders, for so long.
Lopez said he also hopes the reflection that the 20th anniversary offers might provide an opportunity for some healing to a country coming out of a year that has been anything but calm and collected.
“It’s almost like, with COVID, we’ve been so isolated from each other,” Lopez said. He added that maybe remembering 9/11 can remind some Americans of the unity people felt after the attacks.
Between the Flagstaff event and events hosted in phoenix and Tucson, nearly 4,000 took part in the challenge, said organizer Kurt Braatz.
While more than 100 people came out to complete the stair walk in Flagstaff, Braatz said, they had about 222 people registered for the event who might be participating in other ways.
If individuals wanted to complete the challenge but were unable to make it to the Skydome, Braatz said they might do the complete the challenge in other ways, be that a hike or just on a stair master.
Adrian Skabelund can be reached by phone at (928) 556-2261, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @AdrianSkabelund.