OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — This year's 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb will look a bit different but will still honor the firefighters who gave their lives during the terror attack at the World Trade Center.
Typically, 343 firefighters — representing the 343 firefighters who died on 9/11 — would gather at the Town Pavilion building in downtown Kansas City to climb 110 flights of stairs — representing the 110 stories of the World Trade Center.
Because of pandemic safety measures, that event won't happen this year. However, firefighters will still do the climb on their own.
For Lee Wilkens, this will be his 11th year completing the climb.
Wilkens wasn't a firefighter yet when the terror attack happened on 9/11. But that tragedy is one of the reasons he later became one. He now works as a firefighter and EMS worker for the Overland Park Fire Department.
When the 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb started in Kansas City in 2010, he felt compelled to honor the 343 firefighters who sacrificed themselves to save others.
"When this opportunity presented itself, I felt like it was an opportunity for me to pay tribute to the firefighters who had fallen," Wilkens said. "It started off just being a challenge, and it's become, as the years progress, it's become more and more of a vendetta."
Each climber carries a photo of one of the fallen heroes. Since his very first climb, Wilkens has chosen a man named Peter Bielfeld.
Bielfeld had been off-duty because of an injury, but on 9/11, he was going back to the fire department to get medical clearance to return to work.
When he saw the towers get hit, he raced to the nearest fire station and took the first set of gear that fit him. He left a note, asking the station to tell his family he loved them.
He never returned.
Wilkens said Bielfeld's story resonated with him and helps keep him motivated during the climb.
"It's a challenge, grueling challenge to do these stair climbs. But the only thing I look for is finding Peter Bielfeld's picture on the wall and knowing that I can get there and I can do it," Wilkens said.
Wilkens has reached out to Bielfeld's former fire station in New York, and they've sent him t-shirts to wear each year during the climbs. He said he hopes to reach out to Bielfeld's family one day.
On Saturday, Wilkens will climb The Cypress at the Lake building in Sunrise Beach, Missouri, near Lake of the Ozarks. It's 12 stories tall, meaning Wilkens will have to go up and down just over nine times to complete the 110 flights.
"Our only job is to finish 110 flights, ring the bell and pay tribute to our firefighters," Wilkens said.
While the climb is only open to current or retired firefighters, there is a way for others to get involved.
The climb also serves as a fundraiser for the S.A.F.E fund, a local program that provides money to the families of first responders who are killed in the line of duty. Anyone can donate on the Kansas City 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb website.