The lobby of the Hilton Baltimore Hotel was filled Thursday with firefighters, many of them in full turnout gear. But they were not on their way to fight a blaze; they were there to pay tribute to their fallen brethren.
They would each ascend the hotel's 22 flights of stairs five times to simulate the 110 stories in the World Trade Center towers, where 343 New York City firefighters lost their lives on Sept. 11, 2001.
"It is not that hard, when you know why you are doing it," said Jacob Zimmerman, 30, of Washington.
The 9/11 Memorial Stair Climbs started seven years ago in Denver and have since spread across the country as a way to honor the fallen firefighters. With numerous firefighters in Baltimore for the annual Fire Expo, the climb drew more than 100 participants.
A brief ceremony with the national anthem, a prayer and a caution to look out for one another preceded the climb. Bagpipers and drummers played solemn tunes as each participant rang a symbolic firehouse bell and spoke the name of a fallen firefighter before heading to the stairs. Hotel staff and guests and family members applauded loudly when each climbing team came through the lobby.
Many wore navy blue shirts with "343 x 110 — never forget" printed on the backs.
Ivan LaBoy, 53, of Jackson, N.J., carried a large circular case on his shoulder. It held an American flag in honor of "all those who didn't make it home that terrible day," he said.
Midway through the fourth of five ascensions, his 10-year-old daughter, Julia, added her backpack to his load. "This is fun but really hard," she said and then raced ahead of her father.
Like LaBoy, many climbed in full gear, which added dozens of pounds and made the exercise even hotter. Penny Andrews, 48, and her co-worker at the University of Maryland Medical Center, Maria Madden, 41, wore less-cumbersome shorts, T-shirts and tennis shoes.
"This is the least we can do to honor these heroes," Andrews said. "I know it will be hard and hot, but this building is not on fire."
Each participant had photos of the fallen firefighters pinned to their outfits. Some chose only one, but many wore several photos.
Walter Patterson, a 49-year-old career firefighter from Grove City, Pa., was making his fifth climb and has already signed up for a sixth event in Pittsburgh on Sept. 9. Each time, he wears the photo of his friend, Kevin O'Rourke, "a guy who fixed bikes at the fire station for the neighborhood kids." O'Rourke was 44 when he died 11 years ago in the first tower.
"I tell people to look these guys up," he said. "They are more than just a picture."
Jason Skau, 7, of Clinton, Conn., seemed lost in a firefighter's coat but eager to get started.
"My dad is a firefighter, and this is a memorial for the firefighters who died," he said.
At the last minute, his 3-year-old brother, Caden, decided to go along. Jeff Skau carried the toddler for at least half the trek. "No problem," the dad said. "An air pack is heavier to carry."
As soon as climbers reached the top story, they took an elevator to the ground floor and started up the stairs again — four more times. Robert and Kristen Angell, both members of the Prince George's County Fire Department, and their two young sons were all slightly red-faced after their 110 flights.
"I could do it again right now," said Jake Angell, 9. "But my mom can't make it."
Most took about an hour to finish. Many compared their sore legs to noodles or Jell-O afterward, but none complained.
"I am a little tired and facing a long drive home," said a slightly breathless Bryce Chapman, 27, of Warrenton, Va., after he finished what was his second memorial climb. "But it was worth it to honor 343 of my brothers."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun