It began in 2005 with five Denver-area firefighters.
About once a month, the small group would get together for training exercises. On the anniversary of 9/11, though, their regular workout involved climbing stairs in full gear at the 1999 Broadway building some 33 times. The grueling trek was the equivalent of trudging up all 110 stories of the World Trade Center and represented a way for them to honor the first responders who died during the tragic terrorist attacks four years earlier.
“That amount of loss, after that amount of commitment, really resonates with people in the fire service,” says Oren Bersagel-Briese, one of the firefighters who participated in the original ascent. “The stair climb was an avenue to remember. We felt a sense of camaraderie and purpose in those moments.”
The next year, 12 Denver-area firefighters did the 9/11 stair climb together. And the year after that, 250 firefighters made the trek. By the fourth year, the event had become so popular they decided to cap the number of participants at 343—the exact number of firefighters who died in the immediate aftermath of the attacks.
The maximum number of climbers was a necessity because of space. But it also meant that everyone who wanted to participate in what was now known as the Denver 9/11 Stair Climb wasn’t able to. In 2009, that included West Metro Firefighter Shawn Duncan, who had been a part of the climbs in previous years. He saw the level of interest as an opportunity. “I decided, there is obviously a need for more spots for these climbs,” he says. “I figured, let’s start another one. Let’s do it at Red Rocks, and let’s do it outside.”
Duncan ultimately helped create an event just like that for the anniversary of 9/11 in 2009. Along with being held at Colorado’s most iconic venue, the country’s second stair climb was open to more than just firefighters. “We ended up with more than 400 people showing up and climbing the stairs with us that first year [at Red Rocks],” Duncan says. “There were a lot of people from the community, even teachers and flight attendants.”
The success of both events caught the eye of the National Fallen Firefighter Foundation (NFFF). Following the 2010 anniversary, Bersagel-Briese, Duncan, and another firefighter from Nashville (who put on the first climb outside of Colorado earlier that year), got together with NFFF to create a template for how to host a 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb anywhere in the country. The guidelines included information about how to set up a donation program—raised funds that the NFFF directs towards the FDNY Counseling Services Unit, families of FDNY members who died following the World Trade Center attacks, and upkeep of the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial.
Since creating the template, the number of stair climbs has grown annually. They’ve been held in almost every state, as well as multiple foreign countries, including Japan and Afghanistan. This September, there will be more than 50 such events for the first time.
The 16th Denver 9/11 Stair Climb will take place at 1801 California Street downtown this Saturday. Each of the 343 participating firefighters will carry a photo of one of their comrades who lost their life at the World Trade Center.
The Red Rocks event, now known as the Colorado 9/11 Stair Climb, will be in-person again after having a virtual gathering last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Registrations to make nine laps around the outside staircases at the venue (also the equivalent of the 110 stories at the World Trade Center) have been capped at 1,200 people because of continued concern about the Delta variant. “Typically, the Red Rocks climb is the largest climb in the country,” Duncan says. “We usually have about 3,500 to 4,000 people show up. We have a friendly competition with our friends in Green Bay to see who will have the largest. They are going to win that this year. I think they’re expecting 2,500 to 3,000 people at Lambeau Field.”
While all the spots to participate have been taken up, that doesn’t mean you can’t still help out in some manner. You can submit donations to the NFFF, as well as sponsor participants who have fundraising goals for the event.
Bersagel-Briese feels that Coloradans should be proud to have two such gatherings in their own backyard. “Other places have wildly successful climbs, but not two of them,” he says. “And not with this much sustained support. It’s a pretty unique thing.”