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Catonsville resident climbs 1,980 steps to honor firefighters who died on 9/11

Wendy McCord wore more than 25 pounds of turnout gear during fundraiser at Baltimore Hilton

By Brian Conlin, bconlin@patuxent.com

5:31 PM EDT, July 20, 2012

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When Wendy McCord, a 17-year veteran firefighter, puts on her protective gear, it's usually for in preparation for a dangerous situation.

On July 19, she donned her flame-retardant jacket and trousers as a tribute to firefighters who died nearly 11 years ago.

The Catonsville resident joined about 100 other firefighters who climbed the stairs of the 22-story Hilton Baltimore five times during the second 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb, sponsored by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.

The memorial climb, not a race, ran concurrently with the Firehouse Expo and raised $4,000 for the FDNY Counseling Services Unit, which provides support to survivors of fallen firefighters.

"It's more about the brotherhood and everybody finishing and helping each other," McCord said of the climb.

Finishing in about 90 minutes, McCord and her comrades climbed 1,980 steps to equal a total of 110 stories, the same number as the World Trade Center in New York, in memory of the 343 firefighters who died on Sept. 11.

"It's a great way to pay tribute to firefighters who were killed on Sept. 11," said McCord, who served with the Arbutus Volunteer Fire Department from 1995 to 2001.

Though some participants wore T-shirts and shorts, McCord, 36, a career firefighter in Howard County since 1999, opted to don her helmet and turnout gear of trousers and jacket, which she estimated to weigh 25 to 30 pounds.

Normally, the total amount of gear weighs about twice that, but the participants were not allowed to carry their compressed air tanks during the climb.

While temperatures swelled into the 90s outside, the narrow stairwells inside received only a bit of the air conditioning that was being pumped through the hotel near the Inner Harbor.

About midway through, many of the participants who started off wearing full gear were carrying their helmets or had tied their jackets around their waists.

McCord, who admitted to having butterflies minutes prior to the event started at noon, kept each piece of her equipment in place throughout the event.

As she climbed the stairs, McCord, a veteran of triathlons and other races, ignored the burning in her legs, instead focusing on "those firefighters ready to go all the way to the top even with tools as well as their full gear and their bottles (of oxygen).

"It's the worst call you could imagine, so of course we think about them," she said.

Despite the tiring climbs, McCord flashed a smile each time she walked through the lobby as spectators applauded before she started her next ascent.

McCord couldn't recall the exact details, but said the highest she had ever climbed in a rescue effort was in an eight- or nine-story building in Columbia after someone left a pot unattended on a stove and smoke filled the hallway.

"I think it tugs at every firefighter's heart across the country," McCord said of the tragedy 11 years ago. "Those guys went to work in the morning not expecting that."

After the terrorist attacks, McCord said she went to New York with some co-workers to attend the funerals of seven firefighters who died at the World Trade Center.

"We were going up, along with numerous other departments around the nation, to any funeral that we could," McCord said. "There's a nationwide brotherhood among firefighters, whether you met or not."

Each participant of the stair climb wore at least one badge that featured the photo of a New York City firefighter who died during the terrorist attacks.

Before climbing, the firefighters rang a bell for every badge they wore.

McCord had eight attached to her jacket along with a picture of Michael Boyle, one of the firefighters whose funeral she attended.