In the early hours of Monday morning, more than 1,000 firefighters, police officers, first responders, military members, and citizens from across Texas gathered at the Tower of the Americas to climb the building's 952 steps in honor of the fallen heroes of Sept. 11, 2001.
Participants in the fifth annual San Antonio 110 9/11 Memorial Climb carried tags to the top of the 750-foot tower, each tag bearing the photo and name of one of the 343 New York City firefighters who died attempting to rescue people trapped in the World Trade Center towers. Another 79 police officers and EMS technicians perished at Ground Zero in terrorist attacks.
"Sept. 11, 2001 is a day that is emblazoned upon our memories and upon our hearts, not just because of the significance of our profession, but because we mourn the loss of 343 of our brothers," said Dawn Solinski, founder and director of the San Antonio 110 Memorial Climb. "That loss ... shook the very essence of our being. It changed us."
This year's stair climb also served as a memorial to a fallen firefighter closer to home. San Antonio firefighter Scott Deem, 31, was killed May 19 following a search and rescue mission during a fire at a Northwest side strip center. He was the first local firefighter to die in the line of duty since Jesse F. Bricker Jr. died in 1997, according to the SA Professional Firefighters Association.
Members of Deem's unit, San Antonio Fire Station 35, led the climb following a moment of silence in Deem's honor. As bagpipers played "Amazing Grace," Deem's wife Jennifer and children Dakota, Tyler, and Aubrey stood solemnly before Dakota and Tyler carried their late father's badge to the top of the tower.
"What this event comes down to is brotherhood," said Solinski, who has been with the San Antonio Fire Department for nine years. "Like many things we learn in life, brotherhood is something that is most well-witnessed and usually most amazing in its intensity and its brutal honesty when we come together to mourn a tragedy.
"As a brotherhood, we mourn together."
The number 110 commemorates the number of floors in the former World Trade Center that firefighters climbed to bring victims to safety. First responders from Austin, Del Rio, Beaumont, Corpus Christi, Victoria, and several other Texas cities traveled to San Antonio to honor their fallen brothers and sisters.
"There are even first responders here from Houston," said Lydia Hurtado, who has been on San Antonio 110's organizing committee for three years. "But we did have a lot of cancellations ... due to Hurricane Harvey."
People all over the world, but first responders in particular, remember exactly where they were on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, a day that changed life as we knew it. A total of 2,996 people died in the terrorist attacks, including 2,606 in the World Trade Center towers and immediate area surrounding them.
"In 2001, I had just graduated from the San Antonio Fire Academy," said Richard Anderson, a member of SAFD's Medic 9 unit. "I was a brand new probationary firefighter. I was just starting out, and it formed the impression and the meaning of my career. For 16 years now it has really set the tone for the importance of what happens and what we're here to do. It was a very powerful day that set the tone for the rest of my life."
Lt. Karen Falks, a 28-year veteran with the San Antonio Police Department, was a detective in 2001 and had just learned that she was being transferred to another unit. "I was very upset, because I was leaving a unit that I loved. I was walking through the police station when the first tower went down, and I quickly realized what was important. It changed my entire perspective about a lot of things. I'll never forget that."
Falks said while the event is about collectively mourning the lives lost during 9/11, it is also a time to for Americans to be proud of their country.
"You see the outpouring and support, not only for this event, but for events like this across the country," she said. "While the country hurts for [the events that took place] 16 years ago, we're also healing every single year. Every year these events get bigger, so that tells me that as a country, we are healing. As a first responder, it's comforting."
This year's event benefits the Association of Memorial Stair Climbs, which supports climbs across the country, the most notable ones being in New York, New Orleans, and Dallas.
"Each year, I have a moment at this event that will stand out above the rest," Solinski said. "The first year we held this event, I saw a firefighter exit the tower and head to the remembrance wall, and he was just drenched in sweat. You could tell he was completely exhausted, and yet he had the biggest ear-to-ear smile plastered on his face. I realized later it wasn't sweat that he was wiping from his eyes."
After pausing to compose herself, Solinski recalled another emotional snapshot of one of her fellow firefighters sitting in silence observing one of the time-stamp signs posted in the tower's stairwell. His eyes were locked on the sign because it represented the final floor that firefighters from the Fire Department of the City of New York were able to climb.
"Today we honor them, we pay tribute to them, we remember them, and everything they stood for," Solinski said. "They gave their lives for others, and today we give our sweat and every ache we encounter along the way up those stairs to them."