Conway firefighter again organizing team for National Stair Climb

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


  • Left to right, Team Hilltown343 members Doug Deane, Dakota Deane, Gemma VanderHeld, Brooke Romanovicz and Heather Amos at the National Stair Climb in 2017. CONTRIBUTED FILE PHOTO

  • Team Hilltown343 members, from left, Brooke Romanovicz, Nick VanderHeld, Gemma VanderHeld, Doug Deane and Dakota Deane are seen at the National Stair Climb in 2016. CONTRIBUTED FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 11, 2019

CONWAY — Gemma VanderHeld is heading to New York for a fifth time to honor the folks she calls “the 343.”

Those are the firefighters who gave their lives during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. VanderHeld, who’s now the Conway ambulance director, was a Greenfield Community College student living in Conway that fateful day, and she once again plans to visit Belmont Park to walk up 2,200 steps to symbolically finish the climb her brethren had begun when they were killed by the collapse of the World Trade Center towers.

Participants from across the United States will convene Sunday morning at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y., to raise money for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. The 2,200 steps are the equivalent of the 110 stories of each tower. VanderHeld, 33, said not all participants are firefighters. Groups of friends and entire families also show up to support a good cause, she said.

Some climbers wear full firefighter gear (adding 80 to 100 pounds) for the trek, as likely the majority of the 343 did.

Visit bit.ly/2lRtO6r, VanderHeld’s fundraising page, to make tax-deductible donations. Checks or money orders can also be made out to The National Fallen Firefighter Foundation and mailed to Gemma VanderHeld at 95 Elijah’s Ride Drive, Conway MA 01341. VanderHeld said she will turn in donations at the stair climb.

VanderHeld, who also is a volunteer firefighter of 18 years, said the climb was very emotional last year.

“It always is,” she said Wednesday, the 18th anniversary of the attacks that forever changed the world. “It truly is something bigger than all of us.”

VanderHeld had become a volunteer firefighter about six months before the attacks.

The National Stair Climb was held at Citi Field the first two years before moving to its current location. VanderHeld said the entryways and walkways of Belmont Park, home of the Belmont Stakes thoroughbred horse race, are adorned with photographs of firefighters (including the 343) the day of the National Stair Climb.

“I do look at them as heroes and I feel for their families as much as I would for anybody else who lost their lives in the line of duty — police, fire, EMS. We’re all in it together,” she said.

“I don’t think any of the 343 would call themselves heroes, even if they are. That’s just the nature of the personality that goes into firefighting. The majority of them are not in it for the pomp and circumstance.”

Al-Qaida terrorists hijacked four commercial airliners the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Two struck the twin towers of the World Trade Center, 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 in the aftermath of the attacks.

Homeschooled most of her life, VanderHeld didn’t have morning classes at GCC that morning and took the opportunity to sleep in. She woke up when her mother called to say she heard something horrible was happening in New York. VanderHeld’s mother urged her to walk across the street to her aunt’s house to find out on television what was going on.

VanderHeld remembers seeing smoke billowing from the World Trade Center towers and “realizing that something humongous had just happened to our country.”

For more information about the National Stair Climb, visit bit.ly/2m50N7s.

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