NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Climbing stairs is just part of the job for firefighters and for some it’s away to remember those killed in the line of duty.
Neil Navarro, a Jefferson Parish firefighter, made it his mission several years ago to find a way to honor the 343 firefighters killed during the 9/11 attacks in hopes of making sure their sacrifice is never forgotten.
The stair climb has become ubiquitous with remembering the victims of the country’s deadliest terrorist attack, but it wasn’t until 2016, when Navarro created the New Orleans 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb, that there was a way for local first responders to pay their respects to their fallen brothers and the men and women who never walked away from Ground Zero.
“We each climb with a lanyard with a picture of a fallen first responder. It's to honor and remember each one of these people, but it's also for you to dig down deep inside and tackle that demon within you,” Navarro said.
Each year, hundreds of first responders, firefighters, and a few civilians make the climb at 400 Poydras Tower, climbing 110 flights in total, which is nearly four full trips up the 30-story tower.
“It's tough, it's emotional, but I love it, I’m addicted,” Navarro said.
That same dedication to keeping a memory alive is deep in Nathan Richard’s soul. The Thibodaux volunteer firefighter has made the memorial climb over the last few years.
“I kind of got addicted to it and started doing several different ones after the first,” Richard said.
Last year, Richard climbed the Columbia Center Tower in Seattle as part of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Firefighter Stair Climb. The climb bills itself as the world’s largest on-air stair climb, which means climbers wear full oxygen masks while climbing, but that extra tank of air doesn’t always make the climb easier.
“Imagine exercising, running, climbing the stairs, how much more breath. How much harder it is to actually do it, people don't realize it's a lot tougher,” Richard said.
This year Richard is climbing in honor of Seth Champagne, a New Iberia firefighter who is battling cancer. He’s already raised more than $10,000 on his behalf, but with the climb set in March, he hopes to raise even more money to help find a cure. It’s that battle his fellow firefighter faces that makes training for the climb that much more important.
“You think about the pain and suffering that they're going through. I think about it every time I get up at 4:30 in the morning to do it,” Richard said.
It’s the same thing that keeps Navarro going. Each climb he makes, counts. Each training session is for someone. It’s a passion that quickly spread to his girlfriend, artist Becky Fos, who has helped contributing to the memorial climb since 2017.
“I was nervous I didn't think I could do it 110 flights of stairs in gear. I got to put on the full gear and the tank alone was heavy,” Fos said.
For two years now, Fos has climbed with Navarro and Richard. Alongside the group, Jefferson Parish Fire Chief Dave Tibbetts makes it a mission to make the climb to the top.
“It's a challenge. I think it's a physical challenge first off and foremost it takes a lot of training, but as you get into it, it becomes a mental challenge,” Tibbetts said.
For Fos, with Navarro in her life, that mental challenge can be even tougher.
“I can't even imagine. It just puts everything into perspective and it really hits home and you know I would do anything for them,” Fos said.
Now Fos trains with Navarro, climbing hundreds of stairs at Tad Gormley Stadium each session.
“It is miserable, it is not supposed to be something that's fun, but it's the least I can do. Put myself through a little bit of misery for 30-40 minutes because I know that God forbid if something happened to me there would be someone right there to honor me,” Navarro said.
Tibbetts knows, when the climbing gets tough, there’s always something to help make that next step.
“You've got this person that you are representing, be it from somebody from your past or from New York or wherever and you just think about ‘I can do one more step, I can do one more step, I can do another one, I can do another one,’ because these people gave that ultimate sacrifice,” Tibbetts said.
“They would love to be climbing the stairs too, every stair hurts every, step hurts, but what they wouldn't give to be able to join us,” Fos said.
Richard knows that first hand after travelling to New York where he climbed in honor of FDNY Ladder 5 Lt. Michael Warchola, who died during the 9/11 terror attacks.
“I had the opportunity to actually meet some of the friends, which again it's brings more meaning to it. You hear the stories,” Richard said. “I cooked for that whole truck house, you see where they stayed, where they ate, where their gear hung, it's unbelievable,” Richard said.
With a climb to keep training for next month and a list that sadly grows of lives lost to honor, those who climb don’t see a top step, just another floor, another chance to honor the fallen.
“I'm going to do it until I can't until I'm either rolling around on the wheelchair six feet under I'm going to keep doing this. I wouldn't have it any other way,” Navarro said.