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Excelsior firefighters honor fallen brothers at Kansas City 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb

September 21, 2018—Firefighters are part of a brotherhood. They have an unspoken bond.

One tie that binds them is their career choice, another is their sense of family.

The vision statement of the Excelsior Springs Fire Department, “Striving for Excellence, Rooted in Tradition,” represents all they hold dear. Part of the tradition includes remembering those who have come before.

In the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, nearly 3,000 victims died when hijacked passenger airplanes became vessels of destruction. Two crashed into the World Trade Center towers in New York City, later called Ground Zero, one crashed into The Pentagon in Washington, D.C. and one in a field in Pennsylvania. Of the 2,977 victims that Tuesday morning, 343 were men and women of the fire service.

Excelsior Springs Fire Department

THREE MEMBERS of the Excelsior Springs Fire Department participated in the Kansas City 9-11 Memorial Stair Climb on Sunday, Sept. 9, commemorating the 17th anniversary of 9/11. Firefighter/Paramedic Jason Ortbals, Captain Zac St. John and Firefighter/EMT Mark Harris climbed 110 floors at Town Pavilion in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, to honor the 343 men and women of the FDNY who perished that Tuesday in 2001. EXCELSIOR SPRINGS FIRE DEPARTMENT | Submitted photo

Commemorating the 17th anniversary of the attacks, three members of ESFD participated in an annual stair climb on Sunday, Sept. 9 to honor the 343 firefighters who died.

“Losing those firefighters on 9/11, it was like losing a part of your family,” ESFD Firefighter/EMT Mark Harris said.

Captain Zac St. John joined Harris and Firefighter/Paramedic Jason Ortbals as they participated in the Kansas City 9-11 Memorial Stair Climb at Town Pavilion in downtown Kansas City, Missouri. Kansas City SAFE uses the event as a fundraiser. The Surviving Spouse and Family Endowment Fund, according to their website, “provides financial support to surviving spouses, dependents, or in their absence, the parents of sworn law enforcement officers, firefighters and emergency services personnel who lose their lives in performance of their duties.”

This year’s climb raised close to $13,000 for the fund, which Ortbals said provides money to the family within 24 hours for expenses when government benefits may take months to receive.

“It’s a neat experience to be a part of,” Ortbals said.

Harris and St. John said the three-man group from Excelsior joined other members of the fire service—from 14 states—with some from Iowa Speedway and as far away as the Port of Seattle. A Wildland firefighter did the climb carrying a long-bladed chainsaw since they don’t use bunker gear or air packs to battle fires. The Excelsior team completed the climb in full gear and air packs, which they said weigh at least 50 pounds.

The 343 firefighters completing the KC climb broke up into three heats, Ortbals said.

Each heat climbed 110 stories, symbolizing the height of each tower at the World Trade Center.

“It’s the best way to honor them—climbing those 110 stories,” Harris said.

Since the Town Pavilion contains only 38 floors, they climbed up and down multiple times.

“We all climbed for a firefighter who died,” St. John said.

The firefighter St. John climbed for left behind a family, he said. He left behind a wife and three children, with another born Sept. 13, just two days after the father died.

“You know he didn’t think twice,” St. John said about the firefighter who died that day. “It’s just your job.”

The number 343 means a lot to many in the fire service, St. John continued. For example, the department’s ladder truck says stay back 343 feet instead of 350 feet, for which they don’t mind explaining the significance to the public.

“In the fire service, (9/11 remains) something we’ll never forget,” Ortbals said. “It’s still significant 17 years later.”

In its eighth year, Ortbals said the KC Stair Climb became a way for firemen to come together to remember those who died that day. The photos of the fallen lined the stairwells during the climb.

At the 78th floor, climbers completed the remainder of the climb in silence, to honor the highest point first responders reached in the towers. From that point on, Ortbals said they finished the job the New York firefighters couldn’t.

“Usually when a fireman dies in the line of duty, you say rest easy brother, we’ll take it from here,” Ortbals said.

And on Sunday, a group of 343 fire service members completed a climb in Kansas City to honor those unable to continue 17 years ago in New York.

By Brittany Zegers •

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