Matt Stensland: Climbing the tower to commemorate 9/11 |

Matt Stensland: Climbing the tower to commemorate 9/11

Members of Steamboat Fire Rescue pose for a photograph at the top of the Sheraton Steamboat Resort Tuesday morning. The firefighters recognized Sept. 11 by climbing the stairs in honor of the first responders who died after terrorist attached the World Trade Center in New York 17 years ago.
John F. Russell

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Wearing 43 pounds of bunker gear and another 20 pounds worth of tools, I started my 110-story climb to commemorate the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.

This was the second year Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue firefighters have hiked up and down the stairs at Sheraton Steamboat Resort 13 times to symbolize the heroic efforts of firefighters who together climbed up the crumbling World Trade Center towers.

“They didn’t want to let down their fellow firefighters,” Steamboat firefighter Christian Keller said.

Of the 2,977 people who died in the Sept. 11 attacks, 343 were firefighters.

Firefighters who survived and worked at the fallen towers have encountered health issues, such as asthma, post-traumatic stress and cancer.

The late Kevin Nerney, who lived in Steamboat, died in December 2015 after battling a glioblastoma brain tumor. Nerney was a retired New York City firefighter lieutenant, and he rushed back to New York to help with rescue efforts.

Nerney’s family is certain his cancer was linked to the toxins he was exposed to at the World Trade Center site.

The 10 firefighters who climbed the Sheraton on Tuesday all had their own Sept. 11 stories.

Keller was building boat trailers at Steamboat Lake Marina.

Dave Meissner was installing tile and listening to a classic rock station when the news came over the radio.

“They didn’t play any more music,” Meissner said. “They just played news the rest of the day.”

Julie Wernig was a senior at Steamboat Springs High School, and she walked into her first class — history with Bill McKelvie — and everyone was watching TV.

“I remember pretty much watching all day, and Mr. McKelvie had his American flag pants on,” Wernig said. “I just remember how emotional he was, and he was fine with setting school aside for the day.”

I was also in school, and it was not clear what was going on that day until I showed up to a photojournalism class at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The professor told me the country was under attack and then he scolded me for showing up to class that day. I should have been out doing journalism.

The firefighters also had individual reasons for doing the arduous climb at the Sheraton.

“To me, it’s part of the camaraderie and brotherhood that firefighters share,” Chris Welch said.

The mind wanders as you keep your head down, ascend each stair, sweat and reflect on the Sept. 11 events.

“It makes you think about your own family,” Keller said

Steamboat’s firefighters still looked strong as they hit the halfway point. They were then able to take a break because they had to hustle downtown to take care of someone who was possibly having a stroke.

They then returned, put on their perspiration-soaked fireman’s coats and cranked out the remaining floors knowing Johnny B Good’s Diner was going to provide them lunch.

For the rest of the day, I’m sure the 11 of us all cringed when we saw a stair, but the firefighters working on Sept. 11 had adrenaline running through their veins and more important things to do.

To reach Matt Stensland, call 970-871-4247, email or follow him on Twitter @SBTStensland.

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