The turnout gear-clad firefighter stopped, suddenly, on his journey up the stairs.
He crouched down, his eyes closed, head bowed, a hand on the railing for support.
The firefighter was surrounded by a sea of climbers passing him by.
Some wore shorts and tanks or tees.
About half of them, public servants like himself, climbed — what amounted to 110 stories — in full firefighting gear. Their helmets noted the number of their fire company; most local, some from farther away.
Many of the firefighters carried air packs on their backs, adding to their load. Some also lugged with them the tools of the trade — axes, heavy fire hoses, even.
And yet other first responders climbed up and down the stairs in the bright sunshine of a 78-degree day, at 6,450 feet above sea level, wearing self-contained breathing apparatuses, each breath audible through their face masks as they navigated step after step after step.
Fellow climbers took notice of the firefighter who stopped on the stairs.
Are you OK, many asked, baring rather concerned expressions.
He nodded, but didn’t look up.
What made the firefighter pause to sit on his heels part-way up, I’ll never know. Perhaps exhaustion, perhaps emotion.
It seemed he was kneeling in prayer, said my climbing companion. It seemed he was … overcome.
It was impossible not to be — overcome — during this walk of honor and remembrance held Wednesday, Sept. 11, at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, Colo.
The 11th annual Colorado 9/11 Stair Climb was poignant from the start.
A crowd of 2,500 gathered in the shadow of the giant 300-foot red sandstone rock formations that provide natural acoustics for the outdoor amphitheater.
Civilians and civil servants from fire and rescue stations faced two fire trucks that displayed a huge American flag hung between the extended ladders.
A moment of silence was held at 8:46 a.m., the time when American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center 18 years ago.
The climbers stood in reverence, remembering the 343 FDNY firefighters and almost 3,000 Americans killed during the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 — and those who have since died due to 9/11-related illness.
A loudspeaker blared out recordings of the chaos of the day, of the horror and disbelief audible in the voices of those who witnessed and reported the tragic and unbelievable events as they unfolded.
Stair Climb participants wiped away tears, bowed their heads, clasped their hands, laced their hands with loved ones.
At 9:03 a.m., the moment great evil fated United Airlines Flight 175 to crash into the South Tower, bagpipers and drummers from the Colorado Emerald Society performed “Amazing Grace.”
Then, the climb began.
Walkers circled the historic amphitheater that seats 9,525 nine times to simulate the 110 stories of the WTC, symbolically completing for the 343 their heroic journey to save others.
These 9/11 Memorial Stair Climbs are now held in 50 states, mostly taking place in high-rise buildings, to raise funds for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and the families of the firefighters who made the ultimate sacrifice on 9/11.
The Colorado amphitheater climb, alone, collected $106,000.
A number of climbers carried with them American flags as they circled Red Rocks, originally known as the “Garden of Angels.”
Children born long after 9/11 trudged up the steps with their parents, stopping at the top to take in the panoramic views, including the skyline of Denver in the distance, where more firefighters were taking part in a similar memorial climb.
A little boy and girl high-fived each firefighter who walked past.
A firefighter garbed in gear toted two little ones in carriers, a child on his back, a baby in front, as he made his way around the venue, where The Beatles to the Grateful Dead to John Denver have performed.
And every climber wore a badge containing a photo of one of the 343 who perished on that terrible day.
In bold red letters, each read: “NEVER FORGET.”
We wore the badges of two fallen Brooklyn firefighters: Christian Regenhard, Ladder 131, age 28, and Anthony Rodriguez, Engine 297, age 36.
The sunshine was hot, the sky clear and blue, the altitude high (for those not accustomed) and the sentiment overwhelming.
It was an especially emotional day for one family — that of Stacy Freyta, wife of a Denver firefighter, mother of young children.
Stacy had been one of the Colorado 9/11 Stair Climb coordinators. She had been so kind to me last year when I messaged her, telling her we were registered, but had to cancel due to a health matter.
Stacy sent out our T-shirts, commemorative challenge coins for the climb’s 10-year anniversary, and a couple badges.
Stacy passed away this summer.
Her husband, David, said to me in a subsequent conversation days after the climb that his wife “had a heart of gold.”
You just never know, quite literally from one moment to the next, when life can be taken away.
The families of the 343 who raced into the wounded towers of the WTC that sunny, blue sky-ed September morning, in full turnout gear, air tanks on their backs, with an instinctive inclination to save fellow humans burning in their souls, found that out so brutally.
Perhaps that’s what was on the mind of the firefighter as he paused on the stairs while climbing for his fallen brothers and sisters.
No matter, there was prayer in his posture.
His gesture — on the steps of the Garden of Angels — was a solemn reminder of the collective loss we all suffered on 9/11. A day that can be remembered with a stair climb, but that we must spend a lifetime never, ever forgetting in our collective American soul.