It was a hardy, diverse bunch of people who turned out early Saturday morning— the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City — to climb the 11 flights of stairs at the Yachtsman Resort on the oceanfront in the heart of Myrtle Beach.
There were more than 150 of the climbers and they came in all sizes, ages, shapes and races.
Making their way first up one wing of the stairs and then down 11 flights on another wing of stairs were men, women and children. Some were in shorts, t-shirts and tennis shoes and ball caps, but many of the firefighters who took on the stairs Saturday morning did so in full turnout gear — meaning they navigated the stairwells at the Yachtsman Resort in their helmets and heavy, insulated coats and pants and boots. Some made the climb with oxygen tanks strapped on their back or with 2.5-inch thick firehose draped over their shoulders.
They started their climb at 8:46 a.m. — the exact time 20 years ago that the first terrorist highjacked jet slammed into the face of the north tower of the World Trade Center. Sixteen minutes later, another highjacked jet would slam into the south tower of the WTC.
Many would go up and down the 11 flights of stairs at the Yachtsman so often that surely some of those watching and cheering them on from below, at the front entrance of the hotel at 1304 Ocean Boulevard, must have wondered how much more they could endure.
After all, climbing stairs is tough on anyone, but then try doing it while weighing yourself down with firehoses and oxygen tanks and heavy firefighter’s gear.
But imagine how it must have been in the crowded stairwells in the Twin Towers that fateful day 20 years ago.
With many of the elevators not working after the jets crashed into the towers, the only way for folks to escape the deadly flames and smoke was the stairs —2,071 of them from the top of the building to the bottom. Many did, in fact, get out alive, thanks to the stairwells, but others — choking, coughing and gasping for air in the smoke and fire and bottlenecks of desperate, terrified humanity on the stairs — didn’t survive.
Nothing of that sort plagued the climbers Saturday morning at the Yachtsman, which turned out to have a tinge of fall coolness in the air, making their challenge, if not easy, at least a bit more doable.
As they ascended the stairs and then descended them, again and again, a Scottish kilt-clad member of the Coastal Carolina Shields Pipes and Drums played “Amazing Grace” on his bagpipe.
“It’s an honor to be here playing for the firefighters and for their sacrifices and for their families,” he said. “It’s just a great opportunity to provide some music for these folks.”
As the bagpipe player filled the air with his solemn songs, a couple of hotel guests leaned over the outside railing from the third floor and yelled, “God bless America!”
One of those who climbed the stairs Saturday morning was Tadd Rubin, 44, a firefighter for the city of Myrtle Beach.
“We do this to remember everybody who sacrificed so much," Rubin said. "You know, the families, the people that went in (the burning Twin Towers) when everybody else was trying to get out… The sacrifices that everybody’s made and are still making.”
Rubin, a firefighter for 18 years, hopes that the memories of Sept. 11, 2001, do not fade. And he said people have a responsibility today to teach the younger generation about the history of America and the tough times that many Americans have been through “and what it took to build this country into what it is today."
“We’re a strong country,” he said. “We’re here to support one another and to remember in order to keep hope alive and to keep people united.”
One of the key organizers at the 9/11 commemorative event Saturday morning in downtown Myrtle Beach was Lt. Steve Schuessler of the Myrtle Beach Fire Department.
Schuessler, dressed in his full firefighter’s turnout gear, led the walk up the stairwell. But before he took that first step he shared that he remembered exactly where he was when the attacks occurred on 9/11.
“I was landscaping — driving up the bypass and I heard about it and I stopped at our station 5 and sat there and watched in on TV.”
A total of 343 firefighters (among them a chaplain and two paramedics) and dozens of other first responders died at the World Trade Center on 9/11 — a fact that’s definitely not lost on Schuessler, who said he went to high school with a person who perished there that day.
“Some people (today) don’t even know about 9/11,” Schuessler said. “And we’ve got some younger kids here. So I’ve looked at the way America’s changed since then and I see how many people are here and I know there’s still a strong gathering of people that still love this country no matter what.”
Schuessler was asked if he thought that 13 American soldiers recently being killed in Afghanistan somehow made this celebration of 9/11 more heartfelt.
He nodded yes, explaining, “It comes together because you can see how it pulls on the strings of the red, white and blue. And to come out here on 9/11 and to do this, we draw those strings a little tighter. . . When we come out here and see this it makes me feel good… So when we climb today think about what happened 20 years ago and those people that can’t be here with us.”