The sun was just beginning to paint the underbelly of the eastern clouds when I rolled into the parking lot of Red Rocks Amphitheater. At least thirty cars were already there, with a few folks wandering around in the early dawn dark. It was cool. It’s always cool in the foothills this time of day. The aspens and cottonwoods whispered in the breezes.
I walked up to the sign in desk just as it began accepting us. Huge boxes of T-shirts had been opened and the black Ts were piled by size on the folding tables. I skipped mine; there are never enough and cotton doesn’t do well in the expected heat of the day. It was going to be about 92, which meant that all the firemen and women in their bunkers were going to be roasting.
But then, that’s precisely what they’re trained for. And why a great many of us are alive today because of them.
As I walked to the east end of the table, a small white box held 343 tags with photographs. These were the photos of the first responders who didn’t make it, seventeen years ago today. I pulled out a tag.
A smiling Thomas W. Kelly, known as Mr. Dependable, Ladder 15. He was once a steamfitter.
I would be climbing for Thomas Kelly today. I clipped Fireman Kelly to my chest straps.
At about 8 am two fire trucks raised their buckets high, and a huge flag caught the morning breezes. Twenty three hundred of us heard the broadcast from 9–11. Sang the national anthem. Thanked the volunteers. I was right behind the flag bearers as we headed up the long, high ramp to take us to the stairs.
Nine laps. At 9:03 am we were on the climb. Kelly bounced against my left pectoral muscle. I looked into his smile every so often as the heat rose.
I walked with the military, my peeps. Talked to fire chiefs as we headed up the stairs. Chatted with kids and moms and dads. Hiked my heavy backpack higher on my shoulders as the sun came up and the sweat poured into my eyes.
After about seven laps the men and women in bunkers were sweating profusely. I handed out wet wipes. At the top, there were folks handing out water bottles and fans. There would be beer and pizza and garlic knots and snacks. For us.
Not for those who didn’t make it back seventeen years ago.
I did eleven laps for Thomas Kelly. Because.
He didn’t come back.
We climbed. We celebrated. And we all said thanks, every single step.
I climbed for you, Thomas Kelly.
We climbed for all of you.
Because we will never forget.