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Why in the world would someone climb 50 stories of the Duke Energy Center? (A good reason)

Joseph LaPiana and Suzanne Bergen were so inspired after participating in the inaugural Tunnel to Towers Tower Climb at One World Trade Center last year, they vowed to bring a similar event to Charlotte.

The local residents and elite climbers are serving as volunteer directors for the inaugural Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Tower Climb Charlotte event on April 30 at the Duke Energy Center — a 786-foot skyscraper with 54 floors — on South Tryon Street. The stair climb event will honor the lives lost on 9/11, including 343 fallen firefighters.

The Stephen Siller Tunnel to Tower’s Foundation honors military and first responders through several efforts, including its Tunnel to Towers 5K walk/run in New York City, which attracts roughly 25,000 international participants.

Bergen, an instructor at Charlotte Yoga, has climbed competitively for about a year and already is ranked among the top-ten overall females in the country. Her husband, Joe, a pilot, has been a competitive stair climber for two years.

Once they heard Siller’s story from September 11, 2001, they were compelled to give back.

A member of FDNY’s elite Squad One, a specially trained rescue unit, Siller died at 34 and left behind a wife and five children. On 9/11, Siller made a heroic run to the Twin Towers through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel while carrying 60 pounds of firefighting gear. He was last seen in lower Manhattan.

“We had no choice once we understood the Stephen Siller story and who the foundation benefits,” said Bergen. “Stephen Siller represents the strongest and bravest of that day. We all have a need for connection and to give back. The stair climb is a fun, challenging and exciting way to raise money for our nation’s catastrophically injured veterans. This is our way of paying it forward.”

Frank Siller, chairman and CEO of the Tunnel to Towers Foundation, is thrilled to host the first stair climb event outside of New York City.

“On 9/11, the stairs were the only way out of the World Trade Center that eventually collapsed,” said Siller. “On April 30, I know that everyone who climbs the stairs at the Duke Energy Center will be thinking about what firefighters went through on 9/11. And they should be proud of their efforts that day.”

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Stephanie Hucko (right), 40, of Charlotte, powers past the 49th floor one level from her destination during the Race to the Top Saturday.__ About 510 climbers took the chance to beat down gravity and race to the top of the Duke Energy Center's 50th floor, as they compete against the clock. This years' Race To The Top happened on Saturday, March 24, 2012. The first climbers started at 8:30 am. John D. Simmons - jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Jonah Smith, 36, a firefighter from Fort Mill, has been involved with stair climb events for about six years. He participated in the first Race to the Top in Charlotte in 2010, became the chair of the Charlotte Firefighters 9-11 Memorial Climb four years ago and organizes the annual stair climb.

He’s also participated in the Tunnel to Towers 5K in New York City and wears Stephen Siller’s name inside his coat every time he runs or does a climb.

Smith will do the climb with several fellow firefighters. Each of them will wear all of their firefighting gear, weighing about 75 pounds.

“It’s important to keep a steady pace up the stairs,” he said. “Also, you have to make sure your whole foot hits the stair treads, otherwise you wear out certain muscles before others.”

Throughout the years, participating in various events, Smith has forged bonds with survivors of 9/11, family members of fallen firefighters and other like-minded folks in the Charlotte area. The energy at the event is upbeat but somber at the same time, he said.

“Events like these are important because we can never forget events like 9/11 in our history,” said Smith. “Especially as firefighters, we must remember those that were lost that day. When you begin to struggle, you remember all who were lost on 9/11 and their stories, and it motivates you to keep going.”

Want to go?

What: Tunnel to Towers Tower Climb Charlotte. This event is ranked at 50 points for elite climbers. A “virtual stair climb” will be available for people unable to perform the physical climb.

When: 8 a.m. April 30

Where: Duke Energy Center, 550 South Tryon St.

Details: Entry fee: $40, plus a minimum $100 fundraising requirement. Call Liz Curtis at 718-987-1931 or visit www.T2Tclimb.org.

Photos: Charlotte Observer file

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