Twelve years ago, the nation swore we'd never forget. Now a Spokane firefighter is taking extraordinary steps -- literally -- to make sure those who died on Sept. 11 are honored and not forgotten.
A Chinese proverb says, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." For Roger Libby, his journey began with a single horrific act.
"I watched what happened that day and it had a dramatic effect on me," Libby says, remembering the events of 9/11. He watched on TV that day, knowing hundreds of firefighters were in the World Trade Center towers and would likely never come home.
Twelve years later, he still thinks about those men every day. Libby, now 62, has been a Spokane firefighter for 33 years. He started climbing stairs in the Bank of America building to stay in shape and keep up with his younger colleagues. On the 10th anniversary of 9/11, he joined other members of the department in a memorial stair climb. Each was assigned a firefighter for which to climb.
For Libby, that single act became an obsession.
"One day in that stairwell, it hit me," said Libby. "I did a memorial stair climb in 2011 for one of those guys. Why not do it for all 343?"
Now, before every shift and on his way home at the end, Libby goes back to the stairs. On a lanyard around his neck, he carries a laminated picture of a firefighter killed on 9/11. Each time, he climbs at least 110 stories -- the same height as the World Trade Center. If he's really moved, he'll climb even more.
"I climbed for John Ginley Sept. 2nd and I did 228 flights," he said, showing the laminated photo of Ginley, a 37-year old, second-generation firefighter and father of two.
Every picture, every name has a story. Before he climbs, Libby learns every one. Guys like Vincent Giammona, the fire captain who loved to do Elvis impersonations; he died on his 40th birthday. And James Giberson -- a father of three little girls who was last seen entering Tower 2. His remains have never been found.
"It's very emotional because I can picture what happened that day."
Libby wears a shirt with the FDNY letters on the back. His fire helmet carries a sticker, commemorating the sacrifice. He even has a large tattoo on his right calf, honoring the fallen. Alone in the stairs with his thoughts, he remembers what they sacrificed and the families they left behind. Up 21 floors, then a quick trip in the elevator to go back down and start again.
"I timed it one day," Libby said of that elevator ride. "It's 30 seconds. It's more time to reflect on what I'm doing."
Libby climbs for 343 strangers -- men he never met, but who feel like brothers in the firefighting family. This summer, though, he added another picture to his lanyard: Spokane firefighter John Knighten.
June 30, Knighten lost his battle with cancer, caused by years on the job. He was a friend of Libby's. No ... he was a brother.
"I've been carrying him with me ever since," Libby said of Knighten, whose picture was added to his lanyard on climb 100. "He will complete the last 243 climbs with me."
Another firefighter to carry on a journey that has taken him up more than 17,000 stories -- higher than 42 vertical miles. He's not even halfway done.
"That was the commitment I made to myself and to them," he said. "That I will do all 343 before I retire."
If he hustles, that last climb could happen Sept. 11, 2014. More likely, he'll finish the year after that. No matter when it's over, that last climb will end like all the others before it.
"When I get to the top floor for the last time, I high-five the guy I climbed for and I flip it over and high-five John."
After the climbs, the photo badges are placed in a memorial case that Libby has created inside the fire training center. There's a lot of blank space now. Hard work will fill it up, and their sacrifice -- and Libby's -- will be on display for good.
Though he's exhausted, sore and covered in sweat at the end of every climb, Libby's journey is more emotional than physical. He wants the people of New York to know he's doing it for them.
"I don't feel that what I'm doing is remarkable," Libby said. "I'm memorializing something remarkable done by 343 remarkable men."
Don't forget John Knighten. Including his sacrifice, the number of those honored is now 344.