"Gentlemen, we may not live through today."

Jay Jonas, a deputy chief in the New York Fire Department, heard those words on Sept. 11, right before his unit entered the north tower of the World Trade Center.

"We wished each other good luck, shook each other's hands and headed inside," Jonas said.

There were 13 other firefighters with Jonas on that morning. They were on the 27th floor when they heard the south tower fall. Jonas said he knew that they needed to retreat. Along the way, they stopped to rescue an injured woman.

"Even though we were essentially running for our lives, we put ourselves in harm's way," the 32-year veteran said at Thursday's opening ceremony for the Baltimore Fire Expo, which runs through Saturday at the convention center.

After the speeches, firefighters and others made their way to the adjacent Hilton Baltimore Convention Center Hotel, where more than 320 people in 41 teams climbed 20 floors. When they reached the top, they took a freight elevator down.

Then they climbed back up again. They did this five times to symbolize the 110 floors of the trade center.

Before each ascent, each group rang a bell and announced the name of a New York firefighter who died in the attack 10 years ago. Each wore a picture of one of 343 firefighters who were killed.

The Baltimore County and Baltimore City Fire Departments ascended first. Howard County sent 15 firefighters to make the climb. Capt. William Rosier climbed in full gear — minus heavy oxygen tanks, but still in clothes weighing about 70 pounds — to honor the New York firefighters who had no option to wear anything else.

"As time goes on, people say 'never forget' and wear their T-shirts, but unless folks really have somebody they know personally, they do forget," Rosier said. The hotel was air-conditioned, but climbers still broke out in a sweat, with the outside temperature soaring to 103 degrees.

Jill Regan came to Baltimore from New York to make the climb. She was 22 when her father, firefighter Donald Regan, lost his life in the south tower. "I think everyone has a personal tie in some way," she said. "It wasn't just the people in the World Trade Center. It was the whole country."

It was the sixth stair climb for Baltimore County firefighter Lindsay Opitz, who said it went better than she expected. The 25-year-old Harford County resident has been a career firefighter for the past three years. "It's usually a race, but today they said it wasn't," she said. "We stayed together. It was nice to see there was a real sense of camaraderie."

Sue Hopkins was visiting Baltimore from Ontario, Canada, for a medical conference. She and her daughter remained in the lobby until each of the 41 teams had completed the climb.

""We're honored to have seen it," Hopkins said. "I can't stop crying. It's very powerful."

Jonas, the New York firefighter, said his crew was trapped on the fourth floor of the tower for almost four hours before members used a rope to climb to safety.

"It was heartwarming to see my men one by one make it to West Street," Jonas said of his escape. "I sent them all to their families that night, which was not a common thing. We were very fortunate."

It was the last fire Jonas ever responded to. He was promoted from captain to deputy chief five days later.

He did not participate in the stair climb at the Hilton, but he said he has his own personal tribute. He has worked out how long it takes him to climb real stairs on his Stairmaster.

"I get to the 27th floor and think, 'That's how far I went,'" Jonas said, recalling his ascent a decade ago. "I only have my gym shorts on, not my full gear. Now every time I get on, my goal is to hit the 110th floor."

xcsrbrown@baltsun.com