Never Forget: 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb at Lambeau Field
Record-setting number of climbers raises $110,000 for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation at 2017 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb in Green Bay
This article was originally posted Sept. 25, 2017. It has been updated.
The first 9/11 Memorial Climb was held in Denver on Sept. 3, 2005. Since that first event, interest in stair climbs has spread across the United States.
In 2017, I particpated in the 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb at Lambeau Field. A record number of climbers circled the bowl of Green Bay's tradition-rich and world-famous NFL stadium in honor of the firefighters, EMTs, paramedics and police officers killed responding to the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center twin towers.
The 2,169 stair climbers included firefighters, EMTs, paramedics and police officers; as well as their friends, family and supporters from throughout Wisconsin and a dozen other states. The event, sponsored by Pierce Manufacturing, raised $110,000 for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.
The Lambeau Field stair climb is one of about 50 stair climbs held each year in direct partnership with the NFFF. Other stair climbing events organized without the support of the NFFF occasionally and graciously send financial donations to the NFFF as well.
Why we climb 110 stories
All 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb events have six components in common:
1. Participants climb the equivalent of 110 stories, the height of the World Trade Center towers.
2. Each climber is assigned a name and photo badge for one of the firefighters, police officers or EMS providers killed on 9/11 so they can climb, symbolically, alongside one of the fallen.
3. The climb is measured by the total elevation change – upstairs and downstairs.
4. At the elevation of the 78th floor, which is the highest floor FDNY firefighters were confirmed to have reached, climbers ring a bell to remember the firefighter they are climbing for.
5. Climbers continue to the height of the 110th floor to finish the climb in honor of the fallen.
6. The climb is not a race. It's a memorial event to remember the fallen and support the survivors.
Stair climbs are held in high-rise buildings, outdoor music theaters, professional sports stadiums and high school football field bleachers. Any venue with a few flights of stairs could be used for a stair climb to support the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, which is a 501(c)(3) organization with a Congressional mandate to honor all firefighters who die in the line of duty in the United States.
Hometown stair climb to remember the fallen
I chose the Lambeau Field stair climb, the fifth year it has been offered in Green Bay, my hometown, because of my long history of visiting Lambeau with family and friends. I have vivid memories of my first childhood visit to Lambeau – the brilliant green grass inside the stadium contrasted against the white, gray and brown drab landscape of Wisconsin winter just outside. The stair climb for me represented a new way to experience a treasured venue while honoring the fallen.
I knew why I was climbing, but I wanted to know why others were climbing. During the Friday night and Saturday morning registration, I asked dozens of participants why they were climbing.
For most of the firefighters I spoke with, their response was a simple phrase, "To remember."
It was obvious that these two words were undergirded with deep personal meaning and importance. On each anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, many of us want to hold close the way we felt that day and in the weeks that followed. We want to remember how those events guided us into public safety or affirmed our career decision.
Many firefighter climbers were dedicating their climb to the 343 FDNY firefighters who died on 9/11.
"It's all about the 343," they told me.
Civilian climbers repeatedly told me, "Climbing feels like the right thing to do," or "This is the least I can do to show my support."
Most climbers also acknowledged the loss of life on 9/11 included paramedics, EMTs and police officers, and extended their remembrance, "this is for all of my brothers and sisters."
A few climbers I spoke with knew a firefighter killed on 9/11, families of firefighters killed on 9/11 or firefighters killed by 9/11-related illness or cancer. To a person though, they declined to speak about their personal connection and deflected the conversation to remembering all of the dead.
Fire service tradition to welcome brothers and sisters
Lt. Cody Johnson, public information officer, Green Bay Metro Fire Department, was a high school sophomore on 9/11. Johnson recounted the personal impact of watching the news that day and how it stuck with him when he became a volunteer firefighter.
"Getting a degree in fire protection was the best decision I ever made," Johnson said about his decision to follow his grandfather, uncle and four cousins into a fire service career.
Supporting the event was an easy decision for Johnson and the Green Bay Metro Fire Department. "This is our home field. We need to be here for our brothers and sisters."
"People are here to remember," Johnson said about the department's tradition of welcoming other firefighters.
Johnson discussed the importance and impact of the stair climb. "Every step is huge. All of us were personally affected by 9/11."
Johnson completed the 2016 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb at Lambeau Field and on Sept. 11, 2017, he ascended and descended 110 stories of steps in one of Green Bay's tallest buildings, the University of Wisconsin Green Bay library, with a television reporter.
Last year after about 70 floors of climbing, he questioned why he was climbing, but he pushed himself forward. "Ringing the bell (on the 78th floor) – that gets pretty emotional – and reminds me why I am doing this. It really hit home."
Johnson had these reminders and precautions for stair climbers:
- It's not a race.
- Every step at Lambeau – 12-inch tread height – is huge.
- Turn out gear isn't required and can be used for part or all of the climb.
- Go slow and take breaks for rest, cooling and hydration.
- Climb to any height you desire.
- Switch the leg you step up or down with.
Support for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation
Pierce Manufacturing, eighteen other local sponsors and dozens of volunteers made it possible so that 100 percent of the money raised by the Green Bay stair climb went to the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. The registration fees, sponsorship fees and peer-to-peer fundraising proceeds are used by the NFFF to:
- Send families of fallen firefighters to the Memorial Weekend held in October every year.
- Send surviving children of firefighters who died in the line of duty to summer camp.
- Develop and distribute prevention programs like Everyone Goes Home, the firefighter life safety initiatives.
The NFFF steering committee holds an annual Climb Weekend to bring together event organizers to share best practices and improve the event's impact. The steering committee assists event organizers with logistics, including a comprehensive Incident Action Plan which can be adapted for local use.
"The IAP is everything you need to know to get started," Josh Smith, a member of the steering committee and a Williamson County (Tenn.) Rescue Squad firefighter/EMT explained. "Any city can do a stair climb. You don't have to have a high rise."
Regina Livingston, development program manager for the NFFF, was in Green Bay to oversee walk-up registration and to bring the event proceeds back to the foundation.
Livingston reiterated that any community can host a stair climb with this advice for prospective 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb organizers:
1. Find a venue which allows for 110 stories of climbing.
2. Pick a date.
3. Reach out to potential sponsors.
4. Make a plan to promote the event.
5. Always charge a registration fee.
6. Begin planning early.
7. Work with the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.
Livingston assists with events from April to November. A stair climb doesn't have to be on or close to September 11. Climbs at FDIC, Fire-Rescue International and other conferences are very successful.
She also clarified that the fee is determined by the local organizers. NFFF-supported stair climbs charge $20 to $55 per person.
Philadelphia Fire Department Deputy Fire Commissioner Anthony Sneidar, Jr., was shadowing Livingston and other event organizers as he prepared for the Philadelphia 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb at Lincoln Financial Field, home of the Philadelphia Eagles.
"It's a phenomenal feeling to see the brotherhood and support from outside the fire service," Sneidar said as he watched people line up to register for the climb.
"The support from the foundation (NFFF) helps facilitate a stair climb and get other people involved."
Sneidar, an experienced organizer of golf outings to benefit the NFFF, encourages other fire chiefs to get involved.
"The toughest part of organizing an event is taking the first step," Sneidar said. "Make a commitment. Start the event and it will grow with the support and guidance from NFFF."
Sneidar welcomed seven waves of climbers into Lambeau Saturday morning.
Stair climbs build community
The Green Bay stair climb is a public event and welcomes all to climb. Firefighters from 73 different fire departments registered for the climb and attendees came from 13 different states.
"It's great seeing families ... mom, dad and kids coming to climb," Smith said. "The community is really behind recognizing what happened on 9/11."
Some stair climbs are firefighter only. The Nashville 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb, which started in 2010, is capped at 343 firefighters who are encouraged to wear turnouts, SCBA and carry a piece of equipment. The firefighter participants are divided into companies and climb 28-stories of the Tennessee Tower four times. The annual event sells out in a couple of hours.
For a public climb, the venue can certainly add value to the experience. Many climbers I met were also Packer fans and not shy to admit that part of their motivation was "because it's Lambeau."
Diane Mack, a survivor of a fallen firefighter, connected participants to the important work of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation by describing her personal experience. Mack's father, Firefighter Carl J. Mack, died in the line of duty on April 22, 2003, on the scene of a house fire from a heart attack. He was a volunteer firefighter with Muskego (Wis.) Volunteer Fire Company.
"The funds (raised from the climb) will help families take the first steps without a loved one," Mack said during the opening ceremony. "Those first steps start with the October memorial service."
Stair climb opening ceremony
As we gathered around the stage for the opening ceremony, the FDNY radio traffic from the morning of September 11, 2001 played over the public address system. A respectful silence quickly passed through the crowd as many participants bowed their heads in prayer or reflection, while others gazed upwards at an American flag raised between two aerial apparatus ladders.
The Green Bay Metro Fire Department Honor Guard presented the colors to officially open the event. Their seriousness captured the solemnness of the occasion.
After Paul Cummings, a firefighter and singer/songwriter, sang the national anthem, nearly 3,000 climbers, spectators and volunteers were welcomed by Jim Johnson, president of Pierce Manufacturing.
"Thanks for your overwhelming response," Johnson said. "We are honoring 343 firefighters, supporting their families and supporting all of the families of fallen firefighters."
Assistant Chief Robert Goplin, Green Bay Metro Fire Department, spoke next. He delivered a powerful message about service to others; remembering the fallen; and the role of fire, EMS and law enforcement.
"Police, fire and EMS are on the frontlines of America's defense," Goplin said. "We are critical infrastructure and we need to take care of ourselves."
He listed the cancer prevention steps GBMFD has taken, including:
- On-scene decontamination of firefighters and turnout gear.
- Turnout gear is bagged for transport back to the station in an apparatus compartment, not in the vehicle's cab.
- All firefighters must shower and change their uniform upon return to quarters.
- Each firefighter has two sets of turnout gear.
- Every station has a commercial grade washer dryer for immediate laundering of turnout gear.
"The people of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation are incredible," Goplin said. "They are there at people's most desperate times."
Goplin finished with a rousing demand for all firefighters to pay serious attention to the danger of cancer.
"But, we (firefighters) should not burden the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation by ignoring the risk of cancer. I implore you, we must fight cancer with PPE, policy and directives."
Stair climbs support the fire service
For over 100 years, Pierce Manufacturing has made pumpers, aerials, tankers and rescue units in northeast Wisconsin. Pierce's commitment to the 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb extends well beyond its sponsorship. About 30 Pierce employees, including Jim Johnson, climbed, and 55 employees and their families volunteered.
"We have a responsibility to give back," Dan Meyer, director of Sales and Marketing, said.
Before the event, Meyer and a dozen other Pierce employees handed out shirts to registered participants, answered questions about the event and finished the set-up of signs and the bell marking the 78th floor.
"We are obsessed with our customers and this is a chance for us to be a physically part of an experience – shoulder to shoulder – with them," Meyer said.
For Eric Schmidlkofer, marketing events and exhibits manager, stair climbs are an integral part of the Pierce culture. He helps coordinate the stair climbs held during FDIC and Fire-Rescue International, and supports the involvement of the Pierce dealer network in sponsoring climbs at regional and state firefighter trade shows.
"Our company culture understands what we are building on the shop floor," Schmidlkofer said. "Everything we do protects civilians and firefighters.
Rob Davis, senior director of People and Culture at Pierce Manufacturing, echoed the importance of knowing firefighters to Pierce's culture.
"What they (the FDNY 343) gave touched the whole country," Davis said in a brief conversation with me after the climb. "Anything we can do to give back."
In his position at Pierce, Davis is well-known on the manufacturing floor, but not for his 167 straight games played as a Green Bay Packers' long snapper. He is known throughout the company for his interest in Pierce employees and the important work they do.
"We take a lot of pride in our product," Davis said.
Stair climbs promote health and wellness
"I'm here to remember and to check my fitness," a volunteer firefighter told me a few minutes before the opening ceremonies. He was in his mid-fifties and had been a volunteer for more than two decades.
Another volunteer firefighter, who recently returned to the fire service after her children got older, had a similar mindset. She wanted to remember the 343 and make sure she had the strength and stamina a firefighter needs.
Most of the climbers I spoke with didn't do any specific training for the 9/11 Stair Climb. Many of them hoped a general fitness regime – running, walking and strength training –would be enough to complete the climb. That was my approach as well – overestimating my fitness for climbing and underestimating the difficulty of the event and venue.
"This is a climb of remembrance," Meyer reminded participants as part of a pre-climb safety briefing.
The Lambeau Field steps with their atypical 12-inch tread height and inconsistent distance between steps had me rethinking my preparation after just two ascents. To start the climb, we entered the stadium at about row 25, descended to row one, traversed counter-clockwise to the next set of steps and ascended to row 60. At the top of my second ascent – after 120 step-up lunges and 145 step-down lunges – I had a cramp in my upper-right leg.
I wasn't the only one suddenly aware of the difficulty that lay ahead. Other climbers were resting in the shade, sitting on the bleachers, doffing gear and hydrating at the top of that second ascent.
The west-side of the stadium bowl was bathed in sun and it was 72° F when the climb started. The combination of heat and exertion, especially for the firefighters wearing turnout gear, complicated the difficulty of the event. Climb participants were encouraged to rest often, drink plenty of water and climb as high as they wanted to.
Firefighter/paramedics from Green Bay Metro Fire Department were stationed throughout the stadium bowl and an ambulance was posted just outside the stadium.
Next year's 9/11 Stair Climb at Lambeau Field
Nearly everyone I spoke with said they'll climb again. Many firefighter climbers told me they were going to encourage more members from their department to participate in future years.
Many civilians, like the 13 recruiters from TotalMed Staffing who climbed together, planned to return.
"The climb gives light to what happened on 9/11," one of the recruiters told me after the climb. "We were affected in our own way. Climbing means everything to us."
Details on the 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb at Lambeau Field can be found here.
For a directory of climbs held throughout the year and across the United States, visit the NFFF Stair Climbs by date directory.