NORTH BETHESDA – Firefighters and police officers walked out of the 25-story North Bethesda Market Tower on Sept. 5, wearing their full gear, shirts soaked, and sweat dripping from their foreheads.
Some grabbed water and all caught their breath, having just climbed the stairs of the tallest building in Montgomery County four-and-a-half times.
“It’s exactly 2,000 steps,” said T.J. Monahan, a career firefighter who first organized the event four years ago. “We started on the 10-year anniversary. I’m a retired police officer and a current career firefighter with the Montgomery County Fire Department and I just wanted to come up with a way to honor the police officers and firefighters who lost their lives in 9/11.”
Around 75 people came out to climb those 2,000 steps, the same number of steps first-responders climbed when they responded to the attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
Each wore a badge representing someone who died responding to those attacks.
“I climbed with Jeff Belazo,” Monahan said. “I’ve been climbing with him for a few years now.”
Monahan picked Belazo’s badge at a stair climb years ago.
This past year, he looked up the name to find more information about his climbing partner and learned he was both an avid backcountry skier and a hunter.
Those happened to be Monahan’s biggest passions as well.
“So I’m like, ‘Okay Jeff, it’s you and me, buddy,’” said Monahan. “There’s a story to be told for every face.”
Money collected from the $25 registration fee is designated for a charitable organization within the International Association of Firefighters that helps heal burn wounds firefighters sustain on the job.
Larry Petrick, the deputy director of Health and Safety for the International Association of Firefighters, said events like stair climbs fit perfectly with the personalities of most first responders.
“It’s always part of a competitive, athletic nature of the job, the Type-A personalities,” Petrick said. “It’s very traditional, a lot of camaraderie, a lot of brotherhood, sisterhood.”
In addition to local police and fire jurisdictions, a number of civilians climbed the residential building.
Civilians are still dramatically outnumbered when climbing and more involvement from those out of uniform is one major way Monahan is trying to grow the event.
Petrick said the support of the community makes the event more special for those involved.
“People always like firefighters,” he joked. “So anyway they can get involved with something with them, I think it makes it a little extra special.”
The climb is still a small operation run by Monahan and his wife, with the help of volunteers manning snack and beverage stations.
Building managers have supported them and a young resident even cut the ceremonial ribbon to kick off the climb.
Monahan himself didn’t have time to climb stairs on Saturday. He was too busy cheering on climbers and making sure they had everything they needed to make the event run smoothly.
So, like every other year, he showed up at the residential building a day early to climb the steps by himself.
“You don’t have the adrenaline factor that they do today, but it’s also not as hot in here by yourself,” Monahan laughed. “When you get 75 sweaty bodies in that stairwell, it gets pretty nasty.”
As for why he created this event in the first place, his answer was clear and simple.
“I have 35 years of police and fire background,” he said. “It’s in my blood.”