By Kyle Roberts
As the sun rose over Joe Aillet Stadium Monday morning on the 22nd remembering of the tragic attacks on Sept. 11, a group of local first responders gathered to walk flights of stairs of the venue to honor those that lost their lives that fateful day.
One hundred and ten flights, to be exact, which is close to the estimated 2,200 stairs that the courageous first responders in New York climbed on the day, with too many who did not make it back home that night.
Captain Paramedic of the Ruston Fire Department Mitchell Jones began the 9/11 Ceremonial Stair Climb in 2020 in efforts to have a local presence in North Louisiana to pay homage to those heroes.
“On the first year, there were just four of us,” Jones said. “I wanted to put the word out to see who would be able to come at first. And next year, we asked other offices around the parish and had close to 50. We had a good turnout because it was over the weekend. Ever since then, we’ve had a pretty good turnout.”
George Lee IV, the pastor of the Springs in Ruston and minister at Temple Baptist serves as the chaplain for the RFD.
“A couple of years ago, I was asked to come pray,” Lee said. “And last year, I told Mitchell that the next year, I would climb the stairs with them. It was special to climb together– now, they’re more conditioned than I am, and that definitely showed. But it was good to climb and think about the level of sacrifice it took. It’s really mind blowing.
“That particular fire station (in NYC) lost their chaplain that day, so this was something special for me.”
Clayton Hearn volunteers for the RFD and came out for his second year to make the climb and said that he put himself through the strenuous physical activity of the climb to honor those that lost their lives.
“The responders that were doing this 20 years ago were wearing face masks and walked up with oxygen,” Hearn said. “And even when that ran out, they would keep going on. So any pain and suffering I experienced was nothing compared to what happened 20 years ago.
“But we were glad to stand in the gap and with each step, we remembered a fallen responder who lost their life on that day.”
During the time that the responders walked the steps of the stadium, the actual radio traffic from the New York Fire Department played over the loud speakers, simulating the tense environment of the responders climbing through the towers.
“It sobering to hear that radio traffic as they started to lose first responders,” Lincoln Parish Sheriff Stephen Williams said. “It really takes you back to that day. Everybody remembers exactly what they were doing, and listening to that radio traffic was sobering and to hear it was to relive it.”
Major Landon Hunt of the criminal division echoed Williams.
“It was so humbling,” Hunt said. “These guys laid their lives down. And that whole building was full of New York citizens and the firemen who didn’t have a clue who they were. They knew the building was on fire, and they may not be coming out of there alive and went anyway.
“To me, that gives a hope in humanity to know that we still have heroes out there, too. There are still people who will be willing to lay down their lives for their neighbor and pay the ultimate sacrifice.”