I was seven years old at the time of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.
The only thing I clearly remember from that day was my mom picking up my brother and me from the babysitter’s house as soon as we got off the school bus. I remember being on the front porch as my mom was unlocking the door, still wondering what was going on as she asked us if we knew what happened that morning.
At seven years old, I didn’t understand the magnitude of what was happening. We went into the house and, just like every other TV I saw that day, there was a replay of the burning World Trade Center just before it collapsed. As we stood around the TV together watching the same footage I had been seeing all day, for the first time, as much as a seven-year-old could, I started to realize that this was serious.
As I grew up, I learned more about the events that took nearly 3,000 lives that Tuesday morning years ago. For fifteen years I’ve seen countless photos, videos, voice recordings, news casts, tributes, memorial services and more. In eighth grade, I watched a documentary and cried along with my classmates as our teacher, a member of the military, gave us our first real understanding of the events that happened that day.
When I joined the board of directors for the CNY Memorial Stair Climb, an event to honor the more than 400 first responders who made the ultimate sacrifice on 9/11, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. We had an event to plan and promote, and although the meaning behind it was never lost on us, it didn’t hit home for me until the morning of September 9, 2016.
We were lucky enough to be joined by Tony Cavalieri and Brian McGuire, two firemen from FDNY who were working on 9/11 and, between the two of them, lost more than a hundred men and women they knew that day. They have both since retired due to 9/11-related illnesses.
Brian looked at the tag around my neck, which had a photograph and the words “Carlos Lillo, FDNY,” and he said to me, “You’re representing a medic.”
From my own research that morning, I knew that Carlos Lillo was a 37-year-old paramedic from FDNY whose wife was also in the World Trade Center that day but made it out safely.
“He wasn’t supposed to be there that day,” Brian continued, and he told me more about the brave man I was honored to be climbing for. He had been injured prior to 9/11 and was put on “light duty,” and so he was back at the station doing office work that morning. But when the time came, he stepped up and sacrificed his life along with hundreds of others.
This morning I watched the commemoration at the 9/11 Memorial, and when Carlos Lillo’s name was called, the camera showed an older woman in the audience, presumably his mother, crying and holding a sign with his name on it and the same picture I wore around my neck all day at the climb. As the woman cried, I cried along with her, hundreds of miles away, for a man who sacrificed everything to help others.
We are told time and again at the climb that these are not just names – the more than 400 men and women we were climbing for were husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, children, friends and so on. They were people who were loved and are still missed every single day, 15 years later. And although we were honoring the fallen first responders, every life lost on 9/11 was in our hearts that day.
There were many things throughout the day of the climb that will stick with me: my conversation with Brian McGuire about Carlos Lillo; my conversation with Tony Cavalieri about how grateful he is for our work with the climb and making sure people never forget; listening to “God Bless the USA” surrounded by hundreds of firefighters, police officers, paramedics and more; the moment of silence at 8:46 a.m., followed by bagpipes playing as the first wave of 110 climbers entered the building.
But nothing was as humbling and rewarding as the climb itself, accompanied by the incredible team who helped put this event on and the men and women who turned out – most of them in full turnout gear or uniform – to climb in honor of our fallen heroes.
“We climb because they climbed.”
I donned an air pack at the last minute, and it was a challenge, but it was the firefighters in their full turnout gear who had me in awe. Climbing in honor of fallen heroes alongside so many heroes from my own community who risk their lives – many of them as volunteers – to keep the rest of us safe was truly humbling.
People like them are the reason we will Never Forget.
When I joined the committee behind the CNY Memorial Stair Climb, I had no idea that on September 9 I’d be climbing 110 flights of stairs in honor of Carlos Lillo, a 37-year-old FDNY paramedic, and walking across the stage to shake the hands of two FDNY firemen who risked their lives alongside countless others on 9/11. It truly turned out to be “A Climb to Remember,” and I couldn’t be prouder to be a part of it.
Although our country may be divided, on this day every year, we are one. I’m proud to be part of this nation, honored to know so many men and women who risk their lives both here and across the world to keep us safe, and will always do my part to make sure that we Never Forget.
Days like today always make us hug our loved ones a little tighter, reach out to those we care about to remind them that we do, and appreciate everything we’re not guaranteed to still have tomorrow.
When you do, remember those who gave everything that day, and the ones who – 15 years later – still long to have their loved ones back.
15 years, 20 years, 50 years – no matter how much time passes, we will Never Forget.