At precisely 8:46 a.m. on Sunday morning, roughly 50 volunteer firefighters, U.S. Coast Guard personnel, and National Park Service rangers began a trek to the top of Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in full gear to honor the fellow firefighters and first responders who lost their lives 15 years ago on Sept. 11, 2001.
Now in its fourth year, the annual trek is a display of solidarity, and a way for present-day firefighters and other first responders to pay homage to the heroes of 9/11. The men and women who made the trek to the top were supported by a continually growing crowd of family members and loved ones, as well as lighthouse visitors who were in attendance for the event.
“It’s a small way for us to show our remembrance, and to show that we will never forget,” said Carroll Midgett Jr., the assistant chief of the Buxton Volunteer Fire Department. “Every fire department on Hatteras Island is here, and we have members and chiefs from all across Dare County and even from Virginia. [This event] is not about us, but about remembrance – we are all here to remember and honor our first responders.”
The start time of the climb – 8:46 – signifies the exact time that American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City — a point that Buxton’s deputy chief, Jeffrey Del Monte, made clear as he addressed the assembled crew and spectators right before the climb.
“We appreciate everyone being here today,” he said. “If we walk away from here with nothing but [a pledge to] ‘never forget,’ I think we did our job.”
The trek to the top of the 257 stairs in full gear is an arduous one, but just a few minutes after the climb started – at 8:53 a.m. – the first wave of firefighters could be spotted on the lighthouse balcony, raising an American flag. A second American flag was raised a minute later as more firefighters and climbers reached the top, and both were clearly visible to the appreciative crowd below.
A number of personnel who made the lighthouse climb were involved or close to Ground Zero when terrorists attacked the country.
Tim Buck, who was one of four Coast Guard personnel who made the climb, was aboard the second Coast Guard boat on the scene in New York City on 9/11.
“It’s important for us to be a part of this community event, and to show our respect,” he said.
Steve Faranello of the Frisco Volunteer Fire Department was on a rig outside of New York City on 9/11, and part-time Hatteras islander Mike Regan – who was recently profiled in the Island Free Press – was a first responder at the Pentagon on the morning of the attacks as a firefighter who led a FEMA search and rescue team.
Superintendent David Hallac of the NPS Outer Banks Group also participated in the climb and said it was an important day for the Park Service and the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse site as well.
“It’s a real honor to be here,” he said, “and there’s something special about the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse being the host for this event. The lighthouse watches over us… just as all the local firefighters watch over us. It’s very appropriate.”
A line of island fire trucks remained stationed on the outskirts of the lighthouse throughout the event, and the organization of the climbers was seamless and corresponded perfectly with the 8:46 start time.
An ambulance and two Dare County Emergency Medical Service responders were also stationed just outside the lighthouse in case assistance was needed. A light breeze brought relief to the crowd, but with temperatures hovering around 80 degrees, the breeze was little consolation for the firefighters who were in full gear – many with heavy breathing equipment on their backs.
The wearing of the uniform is also a deliberate and significant part of the event, as it recognizes the first responders of 9/11 who also made their way up the stairs of the World Trade Tower in full, heavy gea r.
“It will definitely be a difficult climb, but by looking around and talking to these firefighters, there will be no problem. They’re up to the challenge,” noted Hallac.
While multiple Hatteras Island fire stations were in attendance for the climb, a number of off-island stations participated as well, including fire departments from the towns of Kill Devil Hills, Duck and Southern Shores.
T.J. Strother of the Southern Shores VFD stated that participation in the event was an honor for firefighters across Dare County. “It’s important for everybody to remember what happened, and not forget the firefighters that were lost.”
The first waves of firefighters to complete the climb walked out of the lighthouse at 9 a.m., and were greeted with applause and cheers from the crowd. Bottled water and Gatorade was provided and gratefully accepted, and the climbers waited in the shade for their fellow personnel to descend.
The last person to complete the climb was retired Buxton VFD member Ray Gray, who is recovering from a severe brain injury. He came down at 9:33 a.m. and was greeted by a loud round of applause by his fellow firefighters and the waiting spectators.
After the climb, organizer Jeffrey Del Monte addressed the crowd before asking for a moment of silence to honor the fallen heroes of 9/11.
“We are dedicated to ‘never forgetting,’ every year,” he said. “And we hope the rest of America is too.”
Hallac and Regan, who retired from the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department in 2011 after 34 years as a firefighter, also addressed the crowd and firefighters in attendance.
“Th e bravest thing [the heroes of that day] ever did was put that uniform on,” said Regan, noting that the participants were wearing the uniform again.
The crowd dwindled after the event, with firefighters still in uniform joining their families – many with VFD or colorful fire truck shirts on, depending on their age – and making their way home.
Shortly after noon, the Cape Hatteras Baptist Church in Frisco sponsored a buffet lunch — with food donated by local restaurants — for all first responders.
But just as it has every year, the annual remembrance of 9/11 left its impression on the crowd, and garnered an appreciation across the board for the local men and women who continue to “put on their uniform” and make a point to remember the day.
“I’ve been [a firefighter] for 34 years, and it was an honor to be with the guys who are doing it today,” said Regan after the event. “…Ray Gray was a great inspiration today – and so was everyone who waited for the last man down… I hope they continue this for years to come.”