An hour before sunrise, more than a hundred people gathered on the football field of Memorial Stadium to take part in an annual ceremony of remembrance. This group of first responders, members of the military, and for the first time, civilians, would soon take to the stands to climb up and down over one hundred flights of stairs.
The exercise is meant to symbolize the 110 floors of the World Trade Center, which first responders climbed to rescue those who were trapped after the terrorist attacks on September 11th.
Two University of Illinois students decided to go all in, donning full firefighting gear, oxygen tanks, and helmets for the climb. They weren’t the only ones to carry extra weight, many others carried bags full of weights or wore Kevlar vests. But for these two students, the realism helped them feel connected to the people who ran into the towers to save others.
“This is what the 400 first responders did,” said Tom Compere, a psychology student in behavioral neuroscience at U of I and volunteer firefighter for Carrol Fire Protection District in Urbana. “With every step I took, I could feel the urgency from the calls that I grew up watching.”
Compere is a junior and 20 years old. He said he can’t remember a time before the effects of the September 11th attacks. Nevertheless, participating in this climb helped him feel like he was walking in the shoes of the people who came before him.
“It’s possibly the most important job out there,” said Compere. “Because people’s lives are on the line one hundred percent of the time.”
Patrick Florey, another student at U of I and volunteer firefighter for Carroll, said firefighting has always been his dream.
For Florey, a senior, 9/11 is something he only remembers learning about in school. He said when he thinks of that time, he remembers the way Americans put aside their disagreements and came together.
Completing the stair climb in full gear was not easy for Compere or Florey. Halfway through, Compere had to lose his pack and Florey took off his jacket as the sun rose and the heat of the September morning set in.
As the lines of people marched up and down the bleachers, Compere and Florey fell behind, with the extra weight and heat taking a toll on their stamina. Though others had technically finished their 110 flights of stairs, they continued with the two students, pushing them ahead and keeping them going. After an hour and a half, Compere and Florey finished the climb, tired, sweaty, hot, but feeling good.
“It was an eye-opening experience,” said Florey.
He studies agricultural accounting at the university, and hopes to become an accountant in the future, but wants to keep firefighting.
“I think I’ll continue to volunteer for the rest of my life,” said Florey. “I just like helping the community that I’m in.”
Compere is currently training to become an EMT and has ambitions of attending medical school after he graduates.