First-responders climb 110 stories in full gear in Dallas to honor 9/11 victims

DALLAS -- For those old enough to remember September 11, 2001, it's a memory that is burned into their minds.

"I was in my 8th grade geometry class when the Towers fell," recalled Priscilla Ellington.  "They brought in the TV, and it was catastrophic to see everything going on."

In advance of the event's 17th anniversary next week, Ellington and more than 600 fellow first-responders participated in the 8th annual Dallas 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb at the Renaissance Tower on Saturday morning.

The climb's first wave featured 343 firefighters, 70 police officers, and nine EMTs, each wearing the name and picture of a victim from their matching department who died at Ground Zero.  Nearly 200 more climbed in a second wave, honoring those who died later from related causes, like cancer.  The ascent was done in full gear, split into two 55-story climbs to represent the 110-story height of the Twin Towers.

"It was definitely very, very hot in there, but I knew I had to get to the top," said Ellington, an police officer for the Mansfield school district.  "I had to give tribute to the person I was climbing for, which was [Port Authority officer] Paul Jurgens.  I just kept thinking about him and his family and I said, 'You know, this is what he would do.  He would get to the top, and this is what I have to do to honor him.'"

As tough as the climb is, just getting to participate in it is even tougher due to the demand.  More than 500 departments from five states took part this year.

"We start our registration at 8 o'clock on June 1," said Cindy Ledesma, the event's director.  "By 8:01 we are completely full.  It happens that quickly."

That response does not go unnoticed by those who knew the victims, like keynote speaker and New York City firefighter Christopher Howard.  He was 18 years old when his police-officer father, George, rushed to Ground Zero on his off-day to help, and was killed when the second tower collapsed.  His badge was passed along to President George Bush, who carried it with him during his presidency.

"I don't really go to a lot of events back home anymore," said Howard, "there's only one thing I do which is kind of a private, invite-only event.  But I do like to get outside of the city and see larger events like this and see that people are remembering and carrying on the memories of guys who were lost that day."

But it's not just about remembering those people in the figurative sense, it's about actually learning who they were.

"I never knew the person I climbed for," said Ellington, "but I was able to make contact with his department and they told me how great of an officer he was, and they said they were very proud that I was climbing for him."

And by building those relationships, people can truly "Never Forget."