If you’re at the gym on any anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks and you see fully dressed firefighters walking toward the cardio area, don’t be alarmed. After all, the sight of firemen usually means you’re about to be rescued or a big problem is about to be solved. Or both.
But not on 9/11. The 11th of September is a somber day for firefighters in America, the day many put on upwards of 70 pounds of turnout gear and remember their fallen comrades by climbing 110 floors — even if they have to do it on a StairMaster.
The practice is known as a “Stair Climb,” and it started as a small memorial event and became a tradition for fire departments and fire veterans all over the United States.
It’s an important milestone for them. What happened on Sept. 11, 2001, caused the single largest loss of firefighters in the United States, and the first mass loss of firefighters in more than a century.
Almost 20 years ago, al Qaeda terrorists flew two Boeing 767 aircraft into the tallest buildings in Manhattan, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. An estimated 2,606 people died in the suicide attacks on New York City — 343 of those were firefighters.
At 8:45 a.m., the first plane, American Airlines Flight 11, hit the North Tower around the 80th floor. Almost immediately, the New York City Fire Department was on its way into the tower. The FDNY’s Engine Company 10 and Ladder Company 10 were stationed across the street from the World Trade Center. When the first plane hit the building, Ten House was going through its morning shift change, so both shifts responded to the crash. If necessary, they would climb all 110 floors, through flaming wreckage and burning jet fuel, to do the job.
Just 18 minutes later, United Flight 175 hit the South Tower near the 60th floor. First responders from the FDNY would go up those 110 floors too, through the same hellish inferno.
When marking the anniversary of the attacks with a Stair Climb, firefighters begin the long march up 110 floors’ worth of stairs at 8:46 a.m., roughly the same time as the first firefighters who walked into the North Tower that day.
According to the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF), the first 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb came about in 2005, when the wounds were still fresh. A group of five Colorado firefighters decided they would climb one of Denver’s tallest buildings, 110 flights of stairs, to remember their brothers who died that day.
From there, the practice only grew. When they held the next Stair Climb in 2006, a total of 12 firefighters from all four Denver-area fire departments joined them.
By 2008, so many people wanted to do the ritual Stair Climb, for safety reasons the organizers decided to cap attendance at 343, the same number of FDNY firefighters who died at the Twin Towers on 9/11.
They’re still firefighters, after all.
Five years after that initial Stair Climb, the Denver Fire Department teamed up with the NFFF to help others re-create their 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb anywhere a fire department wanted.
Now on the anniversaries of 9/11, you can see groups of firefighters marching up stairs in skyscrapers, gyms, and even the Red Rocks Amphitheatre. Patriotic and grateful civilians are also known to join their local heroes in the climbs.
Anyone interested in participating in or hosting a Stair Climb can visit the NFFF website to find an event nearby. You can also find step-by-step instructions on how to host one while staging a safe event.
Read Next: Hard-Working Americans: The Firefighter