Conway firefighter heads to National Stair Climb

  • Firefighters ascend stairs at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y., last year. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Conway volunteer firefighter/EMT Gemma VanderHeld at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y., last year. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • VANDERHELD

Recorder Staff
Published: 9/30/2018 11:51:51 PM

CONWAY – Gemma VanderHeld was awoken by a call from her mother on Sept. 11, 2001.

The 15-year-old, homeschooled most of her life, didn’t have morning classes at Greenfield Community College that day and took the opportunity to sleep in. Her mother heard something terrible was going on in New York and urged her to walk across the street in Conway to her aunt’s house to see what was happening on TV. That’s when VanderHeld saw thick smoke billowing out of the World Trade Center towers, her first glimpse at the terrorist attacks that forever changed the nation and the world.

“It was surreal,” she recalled recently, adding that she saw the towers collapse and couldn’t comprehend the magnitude of what was occurring. “I remember thinking, ‘What the hell just happened?’ and realizing that something humongous had just happened to our country.”

VanderHeld had for six months prior been a Conway volunteer firefighter, a role she still serves. It is in this capacity that she will head to New York for the fourth annual National Stair Climb on Oct. 28 to raise money for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. VanderHeld said stair climbs started shortly after the terrorist attacks as a way to honor and remember the 343 firefighters killed when the towers collapsed. Each participating climber at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y., pays tribute to a firefighter by walking 2,200 steps — the equivalent of the 110 stories of each tower. VanderHeld, who turns 33 on Wednesday, has participated in each National Stair Climb, held at Citi Field the first two years, after reading information on Facebook in 2015 about the first one.

Tax-deductible donations to support VanderHeld in the Climb can be made by visiting bit.ly/2y0W6xM. Checks or money orders can be made out to National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and mailed to Gemma VanderHeld at 95 Elijah’s Ride Drive, Conway MA 01341. VanderHeld said no donation is too small. More information about the NFFF and the Stair Climb is available at www.firehero.org.

VanderHeld said she will wear her full gear (an additional 80 to 100 pounds adding to her mounting fatigue) while she symbolically completes her fallen comrades’ heroic journey, though some do not. And not all participants are firefighters. She said groups of friends and entire families show up to support a good cause. VanderHeld said her boyfriend, fellow firefighter Doug Deane, will join her in the climb, and her mother, Marge Held, will be a “support climber” cheering on everyone. Six people represented Conway last year. She explained participants walk up and down flights of stairs, weaving through Belmont Park, home of the Belmont Stakes thoroughbred horse race.

VanderHeld has been volunteer fire in Conway for 17 years, an EMT for nine and the town’s ambulance director for three.

“They’re my second family,” she said of the fire department, echoing the sentiments of a line of work viewed from within as a brotherhood. “There are times where I spend more time with the guys at the fire department — and girls — than with my own family.”

She initially joined Conway’s junior firefighter program, for those 14 to 18 years old, and “got hooked.”

Reach Domenic Poli at dpoli@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 262.


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