Woodward, Okla. —
110 flights of stairs. 55 pounds of gear. 9 Woodward firefighters. And 1 call that changed everything.
This is a story of how a crew of firefighters from Northwest Oklahoma has come to forever carry the memory of the New York City firefighters who died in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.
TAKING ON THE CHALLENGE
Woodward firefighters first learned of the 2013 OKC 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb earlier this summer after receiving an e-mail from the OSU Fire Training Facility.
The e-mail said that the Stair Climb organizers were looking for 343 firefighters from across the state who would be willing to climb 110 flights of stairs in honor of the 343 New York City firefighters who died in the 9/11 terrorist attack.
The Oklahoma firefighters would carry the names of the fallen FDNY firefighters on name tags around their necks as they climbed the 110 stories, which represents the height of the Twin Towers that collapsed after being struck by jets during the attack.
The climb was held on Saturday, Sept. 7 at the First National Center in downtown Oklahoma City.
Upon learning of the memorial event, several Woodward firefighters were eager to participate. They thought of it as a physical challenge.
"It became kind of a goal for us, at least for our shift," Firefighter Steven Rogers said.
The reason it became so important for him and his fellows on A Shift, Rogers said, was because of their lieutenant.
Lt. Steve Smith has been battling cancer for several years after being diagnosed with colon cancer in 2006 and liver cancer in 2009. He continues to receive chemotherapy treatment and even rescheduled his last chemo treatment to take it a day early so he could participate in the OKC Stair Climb on Saturday.
Smith said he wanted to participate in the Stair Climb "to show that I could do it."
By taking on the 110-story climb and completing it, Smith said, "It just gave me the feeling I can accomplish what I set my mind to; that nothing can stop me, I just got to keep fighting."
To show support for their lieutenant the other members of A Shift, including Bobby McDowell, Cody Foster and Ryan Johannesmeyer as well as Rogers, also signed up to participate in the climb as well.
"Steve was definitely our inspiration," Rogers said.
They were soon joined by members from other shifts including David Conner, Darren Eckels, Jordan Ivie and Sterling Parks.
The 9 firefighters then spent weeks training for the climb.
Rogers said they would wear weighted vests or even wear their SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus) packs as they trained to help prepare for the approximately 55 pounds of bunker gear they would be wearing during the climb.
"We wore out that old stair climber in our gym," McDowell said.
FALLEN FIREFIGHTER'S SISTER PUTS IT ALL IN PERSPECTIVE
Throughout those weeks of training, the firefighters continued to focus on the physical challenge of the climb.
But then on the morning of the climb itself, a single phone call shifted that focus.
Foster said he learned that a woman named Kathi Talbott was trying to contact him and that Talbott is the sister of the late Peter Brennan, who was the firefighter he was climbing in memory of.
"I guess she called up to the station and talked to somebody because she was wanting my phone number to talk to me. They wouldn't give out my number but instead gave me her information. So I called her as we were leaving the city that morning to head down for the climb," Foster said.
Foster and Talbott then spoke on the phone for over 30 minutes.
"I talked with her from the time we left Woodward to the other side of Seiling," Foster said. "She was telling me everything about him, about his career as a firefighter and about his children. She said his wife had been pregnant with a boy when he died and his son was born 2 months after. She told me about how their other brother had also been a firefighter for FDNY. She told me about the day their family found out he was dead and how they never found his body."
Foster then shared everything Talbott had told him with his fellow Woodward firefighters.
He said hearing Brennan's story from his sister "was really touching and made it a whole different experience."
The other firefighters agreed.
"It gave the whole climb a new perspective," Johannesmeyer said, noting "It made it a lot more personal for everybody."
"At first it was about the challenge, but then after the phone call and after we got down there, it was about the people we were climbing for," Rogers said.
TALBOTT STRESSES THE NEED TO "NEVER FORGET"
Talbott told The News that was why she wanted to contact the firefighter who was climbing in her brother's honor, "to let him know it wasn't just a name, but a person he was climbing for and a family he was climbing for."
Talbott said she also wanted to let Foster know that there was more to her brother's memory than just how he died.
"My brother didn't just die in 9/11," Talbott said. "He was a great kid. He was funny, he had a great personality, he was the life of the party. And he was born to do what he did helping people."
In an e-mail she sent to Foster, Talbott wrote about how Brennan had been in the Civil Air Patrol as a teenager then became an EMT and later a police officer before finally realizing his dream to become an FDNY firefighter in 1995.
"And all that time my brother was also a volunteer firefighter in Long Island," she said.
Above all Talbott said she wanted Foster to know how much the climb meant to her family and how much she appreciated and supported his participation in the climb and carrying her brother's memory.
"You have to understand on 9/11 the world was changed, but for my family, this was my little brother and so it was just devastating to my family," Talbott said. "Even now when I think about it the tears start rolling."
But because of the Stair Climb and the firefighters like Foster who participated in it, Talbott said she knows her brother will not be forgotten.
"It (the OKC Stair Climb) has meant the world to me, because whoever put this together has lived by the motto 'Never Forget,'" she said. "And I don't think any of us should ever forget because first responders are those who go in to rescue people when everyone else is running out. And that was what my brother did."
CLIMB HAS CHANGED VIEWS ON 9/11
After Foster learned more about the firefighter he climbed for, several of the other Woodward firefighters said they were curious to know more about the men whose names they carried.
"Afterward I went and looked up my guy," said Rogers, who walked for Rescue 3 Firefighter Raymond Meisenheimer. He said knowing more about the man's life "gave the whole thing more meaning, because it felt like you knew the guy."
"I did the same thing," said McDowell, who climbed for Rescue 3 Firefighter Donald Reagan. "I learned that my guy did a bone marrow transplant for a girl he never met."
McDowell said he also learned how Reagan's surviving crew members raised money to fly the girl and her family to New York so that she could attend the funeral of the man who had saved her life with the marrow donation.
Now that they know more about the men who were lost on that fateful day and have in a sense walked in their shoes, the firefighters on Woodward's A Shift said they have a different view when it comes to remembering 9/11.
"Before when you'd think about 9/11 you'd think about the towers and about the planes. Now we're thinking about the people who were just having a normal day when this horrible thing happened," Johannesmeyer said.
Smith said something similar. "I never looked at them as individuals before, just looked at them as a group," he said, noting "it does give you a little perspective, because whoever we walked for, we carried his memory too."
It has also changed how the men view their own careers as firefighters.
"It made you not take the job or life for granted just to know you could come to work any day and not go home and see your family at the end of it," Foster said.