PALM COAST, Fla. (September 11, 2023) – Decked out in full firefighting suits including 70 pounds of gear, firefighters from half a dozen counties climbed 10 flights of stairs, 11 times over, at the Hammock Beach Golf Resort & Spa on Monday. Marking one of the most horrific days in American history, more than 130 people participated in the 3rd Annual 9/11 Memorial Tribute Stair Climb to honor the 2,977 killed including 343 firefighters lost 22 years ago on September 11, 2001.

19 years as part of the fire service, Palm Coast Fire Department’s Bill Kerek stopped for just a moment to rest on his third trip up. When asked why he puts himself through it, not just taking part in the climb where his focus is putting one foot in front of the other, but risking his life to save others, his answers were simple.

“To sacrifice for those who sacrificed for me,” he said of the climb.  “Because we live to serve and the do the best for our fellow man. It’s a noble endeavor.”

In the unforgiving heat, climbers took breaks at the aid stations. Supporters cheered each person on as they stopped to have their tag punched, notating a rotation through a set of 10 flights of stairs. Footage from that day in history played on the large screen television, difficult to look at even now.

Opening the ceremony with prayers, the National Anthem and speeches from both Flagler Schools’ K-12 social studies curriculum specialist Amy Ferrer and student Lincoln Cottle, the son a firefighter, for those assembled, it was a challenge to hold back tears.

“This is a unique and really awesome event,” shared Flagler County Commissioner Andy Dance. “It’s grown to the point where we have pulled multiple agencies together, just annually to remember and give thanks to those who gave their lives in defense of the country and trying to save those people. It’s very important.”

Passing the Torch

As Flagler County Fire Chief Michael Tucker donned his gear, ready to make the trek, he was reflective.

“Obviously remembering is important. In all of life remembering is important. On 9/11 in 2001, 343 firefighters lost their lives when they intentionally went into a place knowing there was a strong chance they weren’t going to come home,” said Tucker, whose agency helped cohost the event.

“They made the ultimate sacrifice. Just to come out today and just honor them, to make sure that their memory lives on is important to us. The fire service, we refer to it as a brotherhood. We care for each other and we want the families of the 343 firefighters to know we still remember them and that we still love them.”

Taking to the stairs, Tucker was surrounded by the next generation of firefighters.

Serving as interim training officer for the Flagler Palm Coast High School Fire Academy, Flagler County Fire Rescue Lt. Drew Hardesty provided encouragement for the students before they began their climb.

“This is a memorable thing for them. It’s a paramount which will be a keystone in their education and will drive them into the career,” said Hardesty. “Today is a representation of the day that changed the face of America. It changed the way emergency operations work, the way we see the world outside of the U.S. Today is most important because today represents the day our nation became one.”

In Service Together

In lock step with members of the fire service, community members took the day off to take part in the stair climb.

“I’m here because I support everything this community is involved in, and the past 22 years has definitely taught me a lot,” said Vincent Amore, branch manager for Trustco Bank in Palm Coast.

“I was in second grade when September 11 happened. You have to take every moment as if it’s your last. Really, the moments you have with your family, your friends are so important. These firefighters, police officers, the people that were there, I remember watching it and being inspired as a kid. 9/11 inspires me as much as millions of other people out there to stick with one another and help each other grow. Why wouldn’t you want to pay tribute to that?”

South Daytona Fire Rescue volunteer Caleb Keirstead and dad Pete Keirstead completed the challenge together.

“It’s been great. He’s my little workout buddy,” said Pete proudly of his son. “He saw some of the firefighters from the Shores, and they treat him so good over there. They take him on nonemergency calls, they treat him like a firefighter. To be here with them, to do this with them, these guys and gals are incredible.”

A Family Perspective

The first to complete the stair climb, Dale Tucker, wife of Flagler County Fire Chief Mike Tucker, and colleague Jessica Bell are both spouses of first responders.

The pair were honored to participate, and compete, wrapping up in 52 minutes.

“Both of our husbands are first responders and we felt like this was something we could come and support,” shared Bell. “My husband works for the Flagler County Sheriffs Office as a deputy and I just pray every day that God keeps him safe.”

“Things we forget we tend to get complacent about and can happen again,” said Tucker. “My kids were very, very little but with their father being a firefighter, you want to remember that every day he’s risking his life to be out there.”

A Unified America

Talking with attendees, there’s a longing for those days following the attack on America when people across the country cared for each other as a family, a friend, a neighbor.

“I just remember back then us all coming together as a nation,” recalled Jessica Bell.

Joe Vece, a member of the Knights of the Inferno Motorcycle Club served 12 years as a firefighter up north before moving to Palm Coast.

Hosting the 17th Annual 9/11 Memorial Ride on Sunday with more than 1,000 on site at the Flagler County Government Services Building, he believes it’s the discord surrounding the state of the Union drawing more people back to ceremonies and services that are seen as unifying for American citizens.

“We had over 1,000 bikes, several speakers, we had Melanie DiMartino singing, she sang 3 songs, and people were actually crying,” said Vece.

“The amount of people who came just for the remembrance is amazing. I think it’s what’s going on today. There’s a lot going on and people are starting to remember what happened and there’s a chance it could happen again. I hope the schools are teaching it. That young man who was here, did a great job.”

“It means a lot to be asked. When I was singing, I looked out and saw a couple of people break down and I just had to look away to stay strong for the song. It is just an honor and a real blessing to be able to stand here today and say I sang the National Anthem for not only America but those who lost their lives,” said DiMartino.

Event organizer Lacy Martin has also seen a growth in the number of participants over the years. Gaining national recognition, the Palm Coast-based event was listed with the other significant 9/11 memorial events by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.

“We’ve got Flagler County, Palm Coast, Apopka, DeLand, Daytona, South Daytona. I’ve got Bunnell PD climbing, Flagler County Sheriff’s Office climbing, regular citizens that traveled here,” she said.

It’s Martin’s way of giving back and cherishing the memories of those who gave their lives to save others on that fateful day.

“It’s so important because we have to keep the memory alive and never forget what happened on 9/11 22 years ago. Some of these people here today weren’t even alive then and it means so much that they’re here, and they’re supporting and paying tribute to those lives lost,” she said, expressing gratitude for the partners and agencies who help with the event.

“We couldn’t do without the Hammock Beach Resort. They’re so gracious,” she said.

Resort marketing and sales director Kerry Mitruska was pleased by the growth of the event, supporting an additional experience for the first responders by opening up The Conservatory for a golf tournament on Sunday before the climb.

“We started this event really with our director of security Adam Dennison and Lacy working together and I think we had less than 15 climbers the first year. To see what this has been built up to now, obviously a very emotional time for the entire country. We’re really proud to be associated with it and to be able to lend our support.”