I was 4 years old when 9/11 happened. I don’t remember any of that day. Yet, years later I’m covering it as a reporter.
Now, on the 20th anniversary, I decided I wanted a glimpse of what it must have felt like that day. So, on Friday I put on 80 pounds of firefighter gear loaned by the Alplaus Volunteer Fire District and I began climbing the equivalent of 110 flights of stairs on a stair-climbing machine at Crunch Fitness in Rotterdam.
I wasn’t the only one.
Several gym staff members, some police officers, some firefighters, members of the gym and an Albany hostage rescue team all did it.
The community event started last year at the gym, said Manager Joanne LeBel.
She said they brought it back because they “wanted to keep doing it and make it a bigger community event.”
The idea came about as a way to pay tribute to all the people who lost their lives during the attack and to those first responders who assisted in rescue and recovery efforts in the days following.
The climbing event is a national one. It is meant to honor the 343 firefighters who lost their lives in the World Trade Centers that day and to simulate the distance they traveled.
It was all about never forgetting one of the most senseless days in American history.
As I climbed the simulated stairs slowly, reminding myself to breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth I felt the weight of the gear. My legs were heavy as I lifted the boots, the weight of the breathing apparatus bearing down on my shoulders and back.
I paused. I needed to. I couldn’t breathe.
Then I reminded myself of the men and women who responded that day to the towers, climbed those flights, went back down them and climbed them again searching for people and I shook my head and got back to climbing.
It was excruciating. I can only imagine being there with the adrenaline racing through my veins and the urgency to get to people.
I can only imagine.
But as I finished the last few flights I whispered a short thank you, not for the end of climbing but for what those men and women did to get people back to safety that day.
A short while after I finished I watched eight members of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Services Corrections Emergency Response Team and Hostage Rescue Team climb the flights in about 30 to 40 pounds of gear.
They shouted “Never Forget” as they did it.
Team member Adam Rivers was the first to finish, completing the flights in 12 minutes and 54 seconds. As others finished and Lt. Scott Smullen was the last member climbing; the guys turned back around and finished out the rest of his flights with him.
Following them were two state police officers in full gear — Chris Gorzynski and Eric Owens.
As they focused on the flights, they remained silent while sweat ran down their faces, taking it one step at a time.
Over three days various gym employees and members also climbed the flights.
Bernie Smith and Chris J. Williams did it together on Wednesday
Smith was just 6 and in school when news of the terrorist attack broke.
“I remember seeing all the TVs,” he said. Not long after, he noted, the school sent children home.
The atmosphere was somber at home, said Smith, a special operations Air Force veteran.
From what he could remember both of his parents were in shock and his mom was crying.
Smith, who climbed 110 flights last year, did it Wednesday with no extra weight in about 22 minutes. Today he is doing it in full Air Force gear and adding additional weight.
“I wanted to do something,” he said about honoring those who lost their lives that day.
Williams had never done it before, but his girlfriend’s dad, Niskayuna firefighter Shane Sweet, helped at Ground Zero just after the attacks.
“I wanted to do it in honor of him,” he said. He also climbed to honor all of the veterans in his family.
Afterward, he said it was more mentally than physically challenging – a small testament to what first responders went through that day.
There was no race for us. There was no urgency. But for those down at Ground Zero, there was and that’s a perspective we’ll never understand.
As Smith and Williams were climbing flights, gym member Stephanie Okrent decided to hop on a stair climber and do it too. She did it last year.
Okrent was in 9th-grade biology class when the attack happened.
“It was scary, no one knew what was going on,” she said.
She climbed “out of respect for the firefighters and bystanders that lost their lives during this senseless attack on the U.S.” and so that “20 years later people don’t forget.”
Saturday South Schenectady firefighters, Schonowe firefighters and two Rotterdam police officers are all climbing 110 flights.
Rotterdam patrol Officer Daniel Bonitatbus and Detective Joe Daurizio heard about the event from LeBel, who used to work with the two men at Best Fitness in Albany.
Bonitatbus liked the idea and proceeded to get the OK from Lt. Jeffrey Collins to wear their gear while doing it. They were expected to begin their climb at 10 a.m.
Bonitatbus was 9 years old when 9/11 occurred. He was walking around school with his best friend who was celebrating his birthday, he said. He remembered approaching a classroom to give them leftover cupcakes and seeing a few teachers huddled around the TV. He said that’s when he saw the towers had been hit.
He also recalled his dad, a Schenectady police officer at the time, telling his mom he was ready to pack a bag and assist if he was asked to go to New York.
That moment with his father is one of the reasons Bonitatbus followed in his footsteps and one of the reasons he decided to climb.
“It just shows the camaraderie and brotherhood of law enforcement no matter where you are,” he said. “Showing support by doing something as little as walking on a Stairmaster to remember those that have passed away is pretty cool.”