RBNY-18 to Make the Climb in Memory of 9/11 Firefighters

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 On September 11, 2001, hundreds of firefighters bravely entered the World Trade Center in an attempt to traverse its 110 stories, to save whoever they could along the way. That day, 343 firefighters didn’t make it home. In honor of that heroic act, on Sunday, October 17, hundreds of people will head to Belmont Park to climb 2,200 steps, or 110 stories, as part of the National Stair Climb. As a community hard hit by loss that day, Rockaway has a big team heading to Belmont to honor the local firefighters who died on 9/11.

In 2015, a group of nine locals participated in the National Stair Climb for the first time. “I was having a conversation about how I wish I could’ve done the Tunnel to Towers run but I can’t run and John Burke, the singer from Wine With Sue and a firefighter from Engine 268/ Ladder 137, mentioned to me that the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) was doing a memorial climb. I jumped at the chance,” team captain Jen Fabry said.

Participants in the climb were given a random ID tag to wear in memory of a firefighter who died on 9/11. Local resident Don Sautner opened his registration packet and pulled out a picture of Firefighter John Heffernan. Heffernan was Sautner’s friend. “We got chills and knew that was a sign that we were doing something special and we’re not going to stop as long as we’re able,” Fabry said.

The team of nine locals became known as RBNY-18. “We lost 18 firefighters between Rockaway and Breezy, so we thought that was a good way to memorialize them—with RBNY-18,” Fabry said. “For all of us, the people we lost were friends and neighbors—Richie Allen, John Heffernan, etc. These are guys we all grew up with or knew and this climb was a way to ensure they weren’t forgotten.”

Not only is the National Stair Climb a symbolic way to honor the fallen—it’s all for a good cause. The donations collected from the Climb fund the programs provided by the NFFF to support the families of fallen firefighters across the country and the FDNY Counseling Services Unit.

 “This takes care of the families of those people who have fallen,” Fabry said. “We’re just beginning to see others battle with cancer and other 9/11 related illnesses and this climb raises funds for not only the fallen but those survivors who are only now beginning their battles with 9/11-related illnesses. It’s been 20 years and we’re still losing these people every day and we can’t forget them and their sacrifice.”

For firefighter and team member, John Burke, NFFF’s contributions to the FDNY Counseling Services Unit gave him personal motivation to support the event. “When I saw that, I knew it was something we had to do. I learned firsthand how important the work they do is. When my wife Colleen was very sick, they made sure they were there for someone to talk to, and they made sure that I had the time I needed to be at the hospital with my wife instead of worrying about work. I knew it was time to give back,” Burke said. “They provide much needed services to our firefighters in need.”

As word spread over the years about RBNY-18’s participation, more and more locals have joined in. “We started out with nine people in two cars. This year, we have 35 in a coach bus,” Fabry said. In total, 44 people will be climbing with RBNY-18 on Sunday.

Fabry says their day starts out at Rogers, where owner Mike McMahon generously hosts them before they head off to Belmont. The ceremony begins at 9:30 a.m. with a prayer service and then the climbers walk around the track’s stairs for the equivalent of 110 stories. Climbers can go at their own pace, but after they reach the end, everyone can ring a bell in memory of the firefighter that they’re climbing for. “There’s a lot of firefighters that come in full gear and it’s a really rewarding and emotional day. It’s something we’re all really proud to be a part of,” Fabry said. After the hard work of the climb, participants are treated to an after party featuring horse races on the track and more. Non-climbers can also attend the reception for a fee.

As last year’s climb was cancelled due to Covid, RBNY-18 is hoping to make this year’s climb a big success. “They lost a lot of fundraising, so we’re hoping this year to help them make up for that loss,” Fabry said. And they’re already on their way. Out of 68 teams, RBNY-18 is the second biggest fundraising team. As we go to press, the team has already surpassed their fundraising goal of $6,000 with $6,490, but every extra dollar helps the cause. “We’ve had people from friends to colleagues to neighbors to complete strangers who have been willing to come forward and donate. Even if it’s $5, every bit helps,” Fabry said. Donations are accepted through Saturday. To donate, head to: https://nfff.akaraisin.com/ui/national/t/RBNY18

Fabry says the team is honored to do this event every year. “It’s only one small way that we can give back to the families of those who we lost and the people who are still fighting every day for their lives,” Fabry said. “They need our support, and it doesn’t seem like a big thing but this is our way of making sure those people are never forgotten.”

 For more information about the National Stair Climb, check out: www.nationalstairclimb.org 

By Katie McFadden

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