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Carroll County firefighters pay tribute to 9/11 victims with stair climbing event in Westminster

Five firefighters from Reese & Community Volunteer Fire Company donned turnout gear and each found their positions in front of StairMaster machines inside Planet Fitness in Westminster.

The unique site drew some attention from the small group that came to the gym for a Friday afternoon workout. Cellphones snapped pictures and recorded video as the firefighters began in unison their quest to climb 110 flights of stairs ― the same amount within New York City’s World Trade Center towers, which suffered terrorist attacks and collapsed Sept. 11, 2001.

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Reese & Community Volunteer Fire Company Lt. Kelly Jones, left, checks firefighter Adam Zbignewich's heart rate as firefighter Eric Vaughn right, works the stair climber at Planet Fitness in Westminster Friday, Sept. 11, 2020. Members of the Reese & Community Volunteer Fire Company set themselves to climbing 110 flights of stairs on stair climber machines at Planet Fitness, Westminster in full turnout gear in honor of the 343 fire fighters who perished in the Twin Towers on 9/11.
Reese & Community Volunteer Fire Company Lt. Kelly Jones, left, checks firefighter Adam Zbignewich's heart rate as firefighter Eric Vaughn right, works the stair climber at Planet Fitness in Westminster Friday, Sept. 11, 2020. Members of the Reese & Community Volunteer Fire Company set themselves to climbing 110 flights of stairs on stair climber machines at Planet Fitness, Westminster in full turnout gear in honor of the 343 fire fighters who perished in the Twin Towers on 9/11. (Dylan Slagle)

To honor the firefighters who died in the towers that day — 343 according to the National National Fallen Firefighters Foundation — Reese took part in the 9/11 Memorial Stair Climbs. The nationwide event is designed for communities to recognize the New York firefighters who gave their lives so that others might live.

Kylee Zbignewich, a 2018 Westminster High School grad, has been with Reese since 2016, and she recently became a career firefighter in Baltimore County. A passion for firefighting was cemented, Zbignewich said, when the Finksburg native visited the 9/11 Memorial & Museum in New York as an eighth-grader.

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“It was very moving,” she said. “Being a career firefighter now, it’s a bigger impact. I feel it, it hits harder.”

Zbignewich helped put the call out to anyone from Reese who wanted to participate. Then she joined fellow Reese firefighters Mike Conaway, Kelly Jones, Eric Vaughn, and Adam Zbignewich on the StairMaster machines.

The memorial stair climbs aren’t timed, but each firefighter makes sure to wear their full gear. Jones, a lieutenant who has been with Reese for six years, said the personal equipment weighs more than 70 pounds. A flight on a StairMaster is listed as 16 steps, so that’s pushing 2,000 stair steps. Add a face covering, which is required while inside the fitness center, and the task is even more challenging.

Jones said he agreed to take part in the stair climb challenge without a break after working a full overnight shift for his second job.

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“I’m not the only one that worked a night shift. Who’s to say any of them didn’t either?” Jones said about the New York firefighters, many of whom also carried water hoses up the World Trade Center stairwells.

“To go out there in a time of need and just got for it, not knowing everything that’s going on [in the towers], what’s coming out after you ... it’s tough. It’s tough on a normal day, let alone something like that.”

Reese fire chief Ken Hyde watched his personnel take to the challenge. When Jones bowed out early his boss gave him the go-ahead since he hadn’t slept in a while. Another began experiencing heat-related symptoms and cut short the exercise.

The rest finished in 30-40 minutes as Reese fire company member Kati Townsley provided encouragement and support while capturing the moment for the fire company’s social media outlets. Zbignewich came up with the idea to get Reese involved, and Townsley helped as much as she could.

“I’m thrilled that our membership ... came out to be able to support today, and to be here to support the people who are actually going to physically do the climbing,” said Townsley, who acts as Reese’s public information officer. “It is great to see young people take the initiative and say, ‘I may not remember, but I know the importance of it to be able to honor and to make sure that other people don’t forget.'"

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