Plans disrupted by pandemic, Conway firefighter seeks machines for National Stair Climb in honor of 9/11

  • Left to right, Doug Deane, Dakota Deane, Gemma VanderHeld, Brooke Romanovicz and Heather Amos at the National Stair Climb in 2017. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Brooke Romanovicz, from left, Nick VanderHeld, Gemma VanderHeld, Doug Deane and Dakota Deane at the National Stair Climb in 2016. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Firefighters ascend stairs in 2017 at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y., during the National Stair Climb. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 9/8/2020 4:11:34 PM

CONWAY — When people say the COVID-19 pandemic has changed every aspect of life, they’re not kidding. The health crisis has upended the norms of health care, education, professional sports — and even the way people honor the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Each of the past five years, Gemma VanderHeld has solicited donations as part of her participation in the National Stair Climb, an annual event in which firefighters from around the country flock to Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y., to ascend 2,200 steps to symbolically finish the climb 343 of their comrades were taking when they were killed by the collapse of the World Trade Center towers.

But the pandemic has forced the event to go virtual this year, and VanderHeld is asking for a little something extra in addition to monetary contributions. The Conway ambulance director and volunteer firefighter is appealing to residents and local gyms in hopes they can lend stair-climber machines, so a team she has assembled can participate remotely.

“That’s the biggest monkey wrench, I would say,” she said. The decision was made two or three weeks ago, she said.

The National Stair Climb — held at Citi Field its first two years before moving to its current location, home of the Belmont Stakes thoroughbred horse race — raises money for the nonprofit National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.

The 2,200 steps are the equivalent of the 110 stories of each twin tower. Not all participants are firefighters, and sometimes groups of friends and entire families show up to support the cause.

VanderHeld, who joined the Conway Fire Department about six months before the terrorist attacks that forever changed the world, said she considered asking local schools to use their stadiums or bleachers, but felt safety regulations related to the pandemic made that infeasible.

The plan is to hold the climb, weather permitting, in front of the Conway Fire Station or in her garage with sanitation and social distancing precautions taken, on a date to be determined.

VanderHeld also thought about holding the virtual event at a local gym, but the climb is challenging enough without participants having to wear masks, as they would be required to do in a gym. Some climbers wear full firefighter gear (adding 80 to 100 pounds), as likely the vast majority of the 343 fallen firefighters did, on their climb.

“If all else fails, I’ll just run up and down my stairs at home and hope I don’t lose count,” she said with a laugh.

If you’re interested in lending a stair-climber machine, VanderHeld can be reached at 413-834-7829 or Those interested in donating can visit her fundraising page at

The 34-year-old recalls with clarity where she was the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Homeschooled most of her life, VanderHeld didn’t have morning classes at Greenfield Community College that morning and was sleeping in. She awoke when her mother called from work at Smith College and said she heard something terrible was happening in New York. Her mother urged her to walk across the street to her aunt’s house to turn on the television and figure out what was going on, as the VanderHelds did not have satellite or cable TV.

Her aunt, who had the day off from work, had just arrived home from grocery shopping, and the two watched in horror as the first tower disappeared into the ground. Her initial hunch that there had been an accident was erased when she saw footage of a plane hitting the second tower.

Al-Qaida terrorists had hijacked four commercial airliners. Two struck the World Trade Center towers, while another was flown into the Pentagon and a fourth crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pa., after passengers attempted to take back control of the plane. The attacks killed nearly 3,000 people, and there is a growing list of those who have died of illnesses related to the conditions endured during the emergency response, especially in New York City.

VanderHeld said the increased danger to first responders has crept back through the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s adding another level of challenge to what we already do. We already run into burning buildings and all that,” VanderHeld said, adding that firefighters now have the added anxiety of knowing they might “catch some invisible disease.”

More information about the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and the National Stair Climb can be found at

Reach Domenic Poli at: or 413-772-0261, ext. 262.

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