That’s the number of flights of stairs participants in Hot Springs’ 9-11 Grand Stair Challenge marched up and down in remembrance of those killed in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center Sept. 11, 2001. Since 15 flights of the city’s Battle Mountain Grand Staircase are approximately equal to the height of one WTC Tower, that’s equivalent to almost 89 towers.
“It’s not a race. It’s not a competition,” said organizer Dusty Pence of Challenge Dakota. “The idea is to challenge yourself.”
Before last week’s event, Jeff Van Meter held the record at 86 flights of stairs climbed. He broke his own record this year, climbing 100 flights, with competition from Corey Lavertue, who climbed 88 flights, Jeremy Bertouchi, who climbed 87, and David Patch, who climbed 83.
The event started mostly by accident, Pence said.
The late Wade Burns, a Hot Springs resident, climbed the city’s Grand Staircase leading to the Hot Springs VA on his 40th birthday, which fell on Sept. 11. Burns, who served as Pence’s personal trainer, once told her he hated his birthday for “two obvious reasons.” The first was the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the second was an accident on his 21st birthday in which he sustained a traumatic brain injury.
On his 40th birthday, he set out to climb the Grand Staircase as many times as it would take to climb one of the World Trade Center Towers. When he told Pence about his actions that day, she suggested they make it an annual event.
The next year, Burns, Pence and about 10 others started up the staircase at 6:46 a.m., the time when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. Another year passed and Burns and Pence planned to climb the staircase again, hoping to attract a few others. But that morning, Burns failed to show up, and Pence learned the next day that he had passed away.
“This (Challenge Dakota) grew out of that,” she said.
The 9-11 event has evolved, adding an opening ceremony with music. Climbers always begin at 6:46 a.m., with the first flight done in silence. That Flight of Silence is led by an individual carrying an American flag, selected individuals being honored and the 11th Man flag, carried to represent those with the climbers in spirit only.
The American flag this year was carried by JR Schaffner, a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a local volunteer representative for Wounded Warriors.
Each year there are inspiring stories.
Julius “JJ” Johnson, 64, is trying to lose weight and was advised against taking part in the stair climb by his doctor.
“(The doctor’s) reasoning was sound, however, she only strengthened the reason of sacrifice,” he said. So many lost their lives, so much loss.”
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Riley Christie, 17, of Buffalo Gap arrived at the Stair Climb last week in his father’s bunker gear with a 50-pound pack on his back and was one of the 11 to lead the first Flight of Silence.
Born one month after the 9-11 attacks, Christie said it was important to him that survivors and the families of the victims understand that even though he wasn’t alive, the events of that day have impacted him.
“It’s difficult to explain, but I wanted to climb the stairs because I wanted to show everyone who survived – and those who didn’t – that I, who literally wasn’t even alive, won’t forget them,” he said.
This is the second year he’s participated in the stair climb but donning his father’s bunker gear added significance to the event. He completed 16 flights and learned the importance of battle buddies along the way.
Around the 12th flight, Christie said he was struggling, when he was joined by veteran Benjamin Watkins.
“He started walking alongside me,” Christie said and eventually offered to carry the 50-pound pack for awhile. Christie was hesitant at first, he said, feeling it was disrespectful to those he was honoring to drop weight. But Watkins put a different spin on it for him.
“He said, ‘None of these firefighters, police officers, paramedics that went up that day did it alone. They all had someone with them.’”
Watkins carried the pack on Christie’s 13th and 14th trips up the Grand Staircase and told the young man, who plans to pursue a career in the medical field, that he hopes he finds someone who will help carry the load.
“I’ll remember that the rest of my life,” said Christie, who is homeschooled and also attends classes in Hot Springs.
“He’s an amazing young man,” Pence said.
There is no time limit on the stair climb, and Pence said she is willing to remain on site until the last person is done. Individuals can climb as few as one flight, stopping by to do what they can before work on or a lunch break, or stay well into the afternoon to reach their goal. The event is free, though participants do have to sign a waiver.
“I hope the day comes I have to sit there until midnight,” Pence said.
An anonymous individual donates $1 for each flight climbed, with proceeds going toward promoting an active lifestyle in Hot Springs and maintaining and repairing the city’s staircases. The donor this year is also providing matching funds toward Hurricane Dorian relief in the Bahamas.
Challenge Dakota also sponsors the Stars and Stripes Race on Memorial Day. The 5K race encompasses five staircases in its route, while the two-mile race includes two of the Hot Springs’ staircases. A new half marathon race includes six flights of stairs.