A firefighter's mission to remember 9/11 comrades

Denver 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb pays tribute, raises funds


On Saturday, Sept. 11, Americans will pay tribute to those lost in the worst terrorist attack in the country’s history as they reflect on the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

Like country star Alan Jackson’s song, “Where Were you When the World Stopped Turning,” many Americans to this day can remember exactly what they were doing when they heard the news that the World Trade Center had been hit by an airliner hijacked by terrorists. Americans still remember the fear, anger and sadness.

In Castle Rock, local firefighter Oren Bersagel-Briese said he had the day off and his pager sounded. He ignored it, and a few minutes later, his pager, home phone and cell phone began going off. All firefighters were called in to Castle Rock Fire to be on hand.

At the time, Bersagel-Briese said his father, who worked with the International Organization of Firefighters, was visiting. Doing what they could, Bersagel-Briese said all the firefighters came together to help his dad organize how to handle the tragedy on a national level.

Bersagel-Briese, a fourth-generation firefighter, said after 9/11, he always felt a sense of duty to pay tribute and support for the firefighters and police officers lost that day.

In 2004, his efforts started on a small level with a handful of firefighters from Denver and Castle Rock getting together to stay fit and talk while climbing stairs.

As the tradition continued each month, in 2005 one of the firefighters brought up the idea of climbing specifically on Sept. 11. That year, five firefighters climbed 110 flights of stairs, representing the 110-story World Trade Center towers, where firefighters climbed on 9/11 to save lives before the towers collapsed.

Besides a remembrance for lost comrades, Bersagel-Briese said, the annual event provides an opportunity to run a fitness exercise, raising the level of awareness for one of the highest firefighter priorities — physical fitness. More than half of the line-of-duty deaths among firefighters are heart-related incidents, he said.

Bersagel-Briese said in 2006, the group had 12 firefighters show up for what came to be known as the Denver 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb. That year, Bersagel-Briese said, the participants realized they were on to something that could become a bigger event.

In 2007, the Denver 9/11 Memorial Climb grew to 250 participants from all over the U.S. In 2008, the number or participants was capped at 343, which Bersagel-Briese said represents the number of firefighters who died on 9/11.

Each year, every firefighter scaling the stairs at a high-rise building in downtown Denver is given a tag with the name and information of a fallen firefighter from 9/11.

“We encourage the firefighters to then call the family of the firefighter they are running for,” Bersagel-Briese said. “They call and let them know they have not been forgotten.”

Now, in its 16th year, the annual stair climb has gained national attention as departments all over the U.S. have started hosting similar events. In a normal year, Bersagel-Briese said, there are more than 16,000 firefighters paying tribute to lost comrades on 9/11.

Bersagel-Briese said the Denver 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb is only for firefighters. For the general public to pay tribute, a public stair climb event is hosted at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre each year.

The Red Rocks Stair Climb, 911stairclimb.com, is limited to 1,200 participants this year.

From the start, Bersagel-Briese said, the annual climb has always been about paying respects to the fallen comrades of 9/11. It was not about money, he said.

However, as the event grew bigger and gained more national attention, the annual event started generating funds. Proceeds go to the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, which provides funding to help firefighters who survived 9/11 but are now being diagnosed with cancer and other illnesses directly related to the attacks.

Over the years, Bersagel-Briese said, more than $7 million has been contributed to helping New York firefighters and their families.


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