“It was a day like any other,” is the way the story often begins when people who were there recall the events of September 11, 2001 at the World Trade Center in New York City. The sky was blue and clear that fateful day, just as it was last Saturday at the Renaissance in downtown Dallas as the collection of climbers filled Elm Street for opening ceremonies of the seventh annual Dallas Stair Climb.
Plenty of local firefighters were there in bunker gear to hear the comments before beginning a symbolic climb up 110 flights in honor of those heroes who lost their lives in the 9/11 tragedy while climbing toward the inferno to rescue whomever they could. It was the 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb to remember 343 firefighters, 70 law enforcement officers and nine emergency medical technicians who perished that day as well as hundreds more who’ve perished since that day from illnesses attributed to work at Ground Zero.
Among those climbers were Prosper Fire Captain Eric Morgan and firefighters Bronson Wheeler, David Weimer and John Bradly. Celina also had several firefighter climbers: Matt Jones, Philip Pongsatianwong, Rob Hale, Chance Malone, Kyle Flowers, Bryan McMeekan, Jacob Talley and Captain Matt Jones.
“We will remember our fallen brothers until our dying breaths,” said Dallas Fire Rescue Chaplain Elaine Maddox as she gave the invocation and set the tone for the event. “We climb because they climbed. We will never forget.”
Joe Torrillo, retired from the FDNY, was the keynote speaker. Torrillo was buried alive twice during the 9/11 attack and reported lost because he was wearing another firefighter’s coat. He was missing for three days.
A 25-year Lieutenant with the NYC Fire Department, Torrillo was retired and on disability from an earlier injury. He was selected to work with the Fisher-Price Corporation to help design an educational fire safety action figure and fire zone toy. It was to be unveiled September 11, 2001. That date was chosen because 911 is the emergency number to call in New York City.
On the way to the press conference set for 9 a.m., Torrillo was less than a mile from the World Trade Center when American Airlines Flight No. 11 struck the South Tower at 8:46 a.m. He went immediately to the scene. After donning borrowed bunker gear, at 9:03 a.m., the second jet flew over Torrillo’s position and slammed into the South Tower. While Torrillo assisted in the rescue operation, the South Tower fell at 9:59 and Torrillo was buried with a fractured skull, broken rib, broken arm, crushed spine and heavy internal bleeding.
He was found alive in the rubble and moved on a spine board to a boat which would take him across the Hudson River to a hospital. But while waiting to leave, the North Tower fell and buried Torrillo again. He was rescued a second time but misidentified at the hospital because he was wearing someone else’s bunker coat. Torrillo survived the collapse of both Towers, but with life-long injuries. Now he travels the world as a motivational speaker and a face for the 9/11 attack.
“As we start this event, I want to thank every single person who came here so we will never ever forget that day 16 years ago,” Torrillo said. “That was the day those terrorists challenged the integrity of the people of the United States and our great nation.”
Torrillo talked about the losses of that day and the resolve that came as the American people seemed to step up and stand up after the attack.
“We owe no excuse to any other nation or any other group of people to say we are proud to be an American,” Torrillo said. “Because as we stand here today and we look back to our founding father President George Washington, 1,343,812 men and women took up arms in all branches of the military and fought in every battle of every war so that you and I can have the right that everybody else endeavors to come and share. “And we in the United States, we offer that opportunity to people we owe nothing to and we do it with loving gratitude. So, anybody who doesn’t believe, I tell you right now, there is no better country than the United States of America.”
As the ceremony came to a close, firefighters, law enforcement personnel and EMTs readied themselves for the stair climb through 110 floors that is the 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb. They began to move toward the door of the Renaissance Tower. Every climber removed head gear and silently touched the piece of steel before entering the building while bagpipes played “Amazing Grace” in the background. That steel had been a part of the World Trade Center and is now maintained by the Prosper Fire Department as a mobile memorial.
Just inside the door where the climbers enter were a number of FDNY members who came to Dallas just for this event. Some were friends and family of heroes fallen that day. They shook the hands of each climber as he or she passed to enter the basement level of the Renaissance Tower and begin the 55-floor climb, only the first stage of the ultimate 110 floors. They are dressed in full bunker gear with tanks on their backs.
It’s a silent and solemn time that brought tears to the eyes of many as they realized the gravity of the event. Each climber wore a lanyard bearing the picture and name of someone murdered in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. Climbers also wore that individual’s accountability badge.
Torrillo and other FDNY members spent time meeting as many climbers as possible. They tried to read as many lanyard cards as possible, and when they came across the identity of someone with whom they served or knew, they would pull that climber aside to tell them the story of the person they were representing.
Some climbers, such as Weimer, represent the same person each year. He has participated several years and represented Gregory Sikorsky of Squad 41 each time.
Wheeler represented Christopher Pickford from Engine 201 and Morgan wore the card of John Florio of Engine 214. Bradley was an alternate so he represented people who’ve died after the event, usually from illnesses caused by being associated with Ground Zero. Bradley was representing Cooper Anderson, the son of a firefighter, who died of childhood cancer. He also represented Claire McCollough.
In the Celina group, McMeekan carried the picture of Dana Hannon from Engine 26, Pongsatianwong represented Salvatore Calabra of Ladder 101, and Malone represented Dennis Carey of Haz Mat 1.
During the climb at the moment that each tower fell (9:59 and 10:28 a.m.) firefighters activated their Personal Alert Safety System which is a shrill and loud whistle designed to go off when a firefighter is in distress. Climbers then stood in place for the mournful playing of TAPS followed by a moment of silence.
The public was invited and stayed on the surface to watch the events unfold on monitors set up around the area for viewing. As a climber finished the final flight of stairs, he or she moved to the accountability board to place the tag of the person he represented. Then the name of that person was announced in the microphone for the feed to the ground floor and then a fire officer sounded the bell.
A fire hose was passed back and forth to try to give every climber the chance to carry the hose for a short time on the 110-story journey. Then as climbers finished, climb participants sign the hose.
Pongsatianwong from the Celina group said it was a difficult feat but it was worth it. “It teaches us traditions and helps us to understand the pride of the fire department,” he said.
Joyce Godwin | Joyce@CedarbrookMedia.com