Firefighters pass a Sept. 11 poster as they begin the first of several climbs up 30 flights of stairs. Photo by Chris Stone

Fifteen years after 9/11, San Diegans say emotions are still strong and the healing process slow. They got help Saturday from one who suffered.

A firefighter rings a bell as he says the name of the fallen responder he is climbing for. Photo by Chris Stone

Addressing the aftermath of the Twin Towers attacks, retired New York firefighter James Smagala urged participants in the annual 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb to face their fears and turn that emotion into something positive.

”Being brave doesn’t mean that you aren’t afraid,” Smagala said outside the Hilton Bayfront Hotel. “No, being brave means that you stand up and do something even though you are afraid. That’s what it is like to be a hero.”

About 1,300 people registered to repeatedly climb the 30-floor hotel south of the San Diego Convention Center to symbolize the 110 floors firefighters climbed at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

About $134,000 was raising for FirefighterAid.org, according to spokeswoman Carlye Wund.

Firefighters from as far as New York, Tennessee, New Jersey and Arizona joined Northern California, Tijuana and local first responders at the event, which also saw members of the public scale the concrete staircase.

Each climber wore the name of a responder whose life was lost that day.

Keynoter Smagala said: “If I have learned anything from my experiences from 911 is that it’s OK to be afraid. Believe me, everyone who was in those towers that day was afraid at some point.”

Smagala recalled seeing FDNY Deputy Chief Raymond Downey, in charge of rescue operations, in the lobby of the North Tower that day. He later died.

Mike Tesulov of Minnesota heard about the 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb and wanted to attend. Photo by Chris Stone

“He just had the look of a man on a journey, a journey that he knows that he won’t return from, yet he charges on heroically regardless.”

Smagala told a crowd in the hundreds: “When you are facing death and fear – directly in the face – it makes you do extraordinary things. It makes you act. So I ask you to take your fears and act on them.

“Challenge yourself, challenge others and be brave even though you are afraid. And just as importantly, remember that it takes bravery to seek help and give yourself the time that the healing process requires.”

The annual stair climb is part of the healing process, he said.

Participants said 15 years hasn’t been a sufficient time to heal wounds.

“For me no, it’s just as emotional every year,” said Cal Fire dispatcher Shannon Moon. “It’s just as heart-wrenching every year to see all of the TV programs and memories and know that so many people’s lives were affected by this in such a horrific way.”

But she said fire departments are like a close-knit family and she wanted to come out and support the ultimate sacrifice of her “brotherhood.”

Mike Tesulov, who calls himself a working tourist because he is a maritime captain while away from home in Minnesota, said, “I get choked up thinking about it. I wasn’t at Ground Zero, but I wanted to be.”

Tesulov, a volunteer firefighter in his home state, added, “I support the 9/11 victims and the legacy that we need to teach to our next generations. We should never forget it because good men only die when they are forgotten.”

He held a large flag. It said: “Will Never Forget.”

James Smagala, a retired FDNY firefighter, speaks at the 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb. Photo by Chris Stone

Also at the Hilton was John Carey of the Rancho Santa Fe fire department, who has taken part in the Memorial Stair Climb since the event began six years ago.

Carey was young on 9/11 and said that event had a great deal to do with his decision to become a firefighter.

Climbing the stairs each year means “everything” to him. As he grows tired and hot climbing up in his full firefighter gear, he says he thinks, “They did it, and if they can do it, I can do it, too. No matter how much I struggle, they struggled the most, so I can get through it.”

Smagala, who worked in communications between FDNY and other agencies, shared his memories of 2001, where he was at the epicenter of the tragedy.

He reported to work in Brooklyn, and looking through his chief’s window saw the first plane go into the North Tower. With fellow firefighters, he raced across the Brooklyn Bridge to arrive at the World Trade Center.

He told his story:

The first thing that I noticed was the intense heat and distinct smell of jet fuel that was permeating the air.

Suddenly without warning, the second plane hit the south tower just above our heads as we all looked up in horror at the scene that was unfolding in front of us.

BANG, BANG, loud gunshot-type noises started coming from just outside the tower lobby, but the ferocious pace of events left little time to think about it. Companies were reporting in left and right now, and I remember a chill running up my spine when I heard Engine Company 226 reporting to the south tower. (His brother Stanley was a firefighter for that engine company.)

I didn’t know if he was working that day, but I had an eerie feeling that he was, and I also had an eerie feeling that I was going to die this day.

Smagala usually worked outside of buildings and was not dressed in full gear. A fellow worker told him to get gear from their vehicle for the two of them.

A participant wipes away a tear as she listens to the speech by retired FDNY firefighter James Smagala. Photo by Chris Stone

BANG, BANG, BANG. The noises got louder as I stepped outside. Between me and our gear and our vehicle were these piles of clothing, just strewn about on the street. It was very strange, as though some jealous wife had just emptied her husband’s drawers out the second story window.

I didn’t understand the gravity of the clothing and the banging until I retuned from our vehicle with our bunker gear.

Eighty stories high above the plane and the flames were desperate, panic-stricken people hanging out the windows.

What do these people do? Well, I’ll tell you what they do. They jump. I saw them jumping, scared for their lives, convinced that their only hope was to somehow survive the fall.

BANG, BANG and two more lives were taken, leaving only piles of clothing behind as their bodies virtually exploded on impact.

As the South Tower collapsed, a rush of debris filled the North Tower and overtook us like a wave on a beach. Total darkness and then dead silence.

I experienced a flood of memories of my whole life in vivid details as if I had lived my life all over again in the matter of a split second.

Smagala said he then felt two sensations: “God touching me, and pulling me out of the rubble” and “a strange feeling that my brother and I had traded places: I having survived and he having surrendered, sacrificing his life for mine, so that my kids didn’t need to lose a father.”

His brother was 36.

“It took a lot of courage to live through 9/11, but it took even more to go on living afterwards,” he said.

Smagala suffered physically and emotionally for years. He then retired from the fire department, and sought help from a therapist.

Smagala went to college and soon will be a physician’s assistant.

His healing continues.

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