KALAMAZOO, Mich. — South Kalamazoo County Firefighter Jennifer Rugg said going up and down the steps at the Wings Event Center was hard. However, thinking of the fire crews that did it on 9/11 years ago is what motivated her to push through to the end.
“They had to do it in a lot worse circumstances than we did,” she said during an interview at the center, where the K-Wings hockey team plays. “It was dark. It was smokey. They can’t see. It was hot.”
It took a lot of strength for the firefighters to go inside the World Trade Center that day after it was struck by two planes, she said. Many of them didn’t return home. Rugg was among the 141 firefighters and civilians who climbed the steps honoring the victims Tuesday morning.
“It’s the 9/11 Stair Climb here in Kalamazoo, Michigan,” said Organizer Jed Wild. “We got a lot of first responders and folks from the community that are out climbing 110 flights worth of stairs that was the height of the World Trade Center.”
Wild said firemen and firewomen drove in from Illinois, Ohio, Indiana and all over Michigan for the event. Some of them brought their families. A few parents carried their children on their backs as they climbed the steps.
“People are burning vacation days,” Wild said. “Some employers are letting them be ‘off’ today for like a social work day, to be apart of a community event.”
Others participants climbed in full gear, with face masks on while holding an axe in their hand and hoes on their backs. They also took a few breaks, sitting on the arena seats to drink a bottled water or two.
“One step at a time. Just keep, keep moving,” is what civilian Jessica Kearns said to herself while climbing. She drove in from Saugatuck to do the event in honor of the victims of 9/11 and her aunt who’s a fallen firewoman.
“I can’t imagine carrying all of that gear, all of those layers,” she continued. “Doing all of those stairs on 9/11 and thinking ‘I have to get to these people. I have to help these people that are trapped.’”
On September 11th, fire crews were able to go as high as the 70th story, Wild said. So when climbers Tuesday morning reached what would been the 70th floor, they rung a bell and read the names of the first responders on a card attached to their helmets.
“Andrew A. Fredericks, Squad 18 ... Patrick J. O’Keefe, Rescue 1” said one fireman as he rang the bell.
“We got these tags,” said Rugg pointing to the two cards on her helmet of Robert C. King Jr., Engine 33 and Andrew C. Brunn, Ladder 5. “It just shows the fallen firefighters, so we can keep their memory alive.”
Organizers placed pictures of the 343 fallen firefighters on seats throughout the arena. Wild said they encouraged the participants to look up the firemen and women on the cards, to get to know them and to continue their legacy.
“We always say ‘we’ll never forget,” said Kalamazoo Township firefighter Mike Rotgers. “This is us not forgetting and honoring those who came before us.”