Charlotte 9/11 memorial stair climb honors first responders who died in the attacks

Kara Walker remembered her late brother, Steven Coakley, on Saturday as she prepared to take part in the fourth annual 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb in uptown Charlotte.

A firefighter with the New York City fire department’s Engine Company 217 in Brooklyn, Coakley, 36, had finished his shift before the World Trade Center towers were attacked by terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001. He ran to catch a fire truck as it rushed away and was last seen helping evacuate people from the south tower.

“I’m climbing today for my brother and the other guys,” said Walker, 45, of Charlotte. “It will be emotional.”

She was among the 550 people at the Duke Energy Center participating in an event sponsored by the Charlotte Firefighters Association to raise money for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.

The teams, which included firefighters, law enforcement officers, EMS personnel and civilians from around the Southeast, climbed 110 floors, the number equal to the height of each World Trade Center tower.

Mist hugged the top of the 50-floor Duke Energy Center as crowds gathered below. People sipped water, stretched and waited their turn to tackle the building.

They’d walk up and down the stairs twice and then finish on the 10th floor. Around their necks were badges with photos and names of first responders who died in the attacks. When walkers entered the building, a bell tolled and they yelled out the name on the badge.

Many made the walk in full firefighting gear, including air cylinders, which meant they carried an extra 75 to 100 pounds.

Before the event began, Charlotte Mayor Dan Clodfelter told the group he was “really humbled to think about what you do for those of us who don’t wear a uniform.

“Thank you for what you do,” he said. “The community will never forget your service.”

A large American flag suspended by a Charlotte fire truck rippled in a breeze as kilted members of the Charlotte Fire Department Pipes and Drum Band played “Minstrel Boy” and “Amazing Grace” – drums and bagpipes echoing along South Tryon Street. A little boy in a firefighter’s coat lowered a plastic firefighter’s helmet in a show of respect.

Charlotte fire Chief Jon Hannan asked the crowd to remember American troops who “are still in harm’s way.”

As for those who died on 9/11, he said Saturday’s event should be a celebration of what the first responders did. “They enjoyed their families,” Hannan said. “We need to remember the joy and fun they brought to our lives.”

Charlotte’s event is the largest charity fundrasing interior memorial climb in the nation, said Charlotte Fire Department Capt. Andy Starnes, who is also volunteer coordinator for the event.

“It’s not a race,” he said. “And it’s not about proving your physical ability. It’s about remembrance and honor.”

Last year’s stair climb raised $40,000, and Starnes said Wells Fargo contributed $20,000 toward the 2014 event. Starnes said the goal this year was to raise more than $40,000.

Competing the climb takes about two hours and Starnes described it as “very, very difficult.” Walkers get bottled water and those in heavy turnout gear are advised to unzip coats to cool them off.

A 16-year veteran of the Fire Department, Starnes has made the climb several times.

Asked what the 9/11 walk means to him, Starnes showed a photo of his 4-year-old daughter. “It means I get to see her and my wife,” he said. “And they (fallen first responders) don’t.”

Among those waiting their turn outside the Duke Energy Center was Scott Matthews with the West Mecklenburg Volunteer Fire Department.

Although this would be his first 9/11 memorial stair climb, “I’m in decent shape,” said Matthews, 30, a volunteer firefighter for 12 years. “I run three days a week.”

He would make the climb in full gear – “what I wear to fires,” Matthews said. “I think this is a great event.”

Also decked out in full gear was Chris Guerzon, 31, a new member of New York City fire department’s Engine Company 217 in Brooklyn.

A former earth science teacher in New York schools, Guerzon graduated from the city’s fire academy in June. His father was a New York City police officer and Guerzon wanted to follow that legacy by becoming a first responder.

Guerzon has a friend whose father lost his life in the 9/11 attacks.

“I’m here to help everybody who died,” Guerzon said.