When Ben Spencer came to his last lap of the FDIC 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, he was handed a badge with a picture on it.
“It was of a fallen firefighter,” the fire chief of the Croth-ersville-Vernon Township Volunteer Fire Department said. “I was proud to represent Captain Patrick J. Waters from New York Fire Department Hazmat 1.”
Though his calves were burning and he felt like he was carrying a small child on his back with more than 70 pounds of fire gear on, the thought of what Waters and other firefighters went through Sept. 11, 2001, entered Spencer’s mind.
“That individual I was walking for went up those towers, and it was probably the scariest moment of his life,” he said.
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“I get to come down, have a bottle of water and hang out with my buddy. They marched into that building not knowing if they’re going to come down or not.”
On April 24, Spencer, who also is a paramedic and firefighter with Columbus Fire Department, climbed the equivalent of the 110 stories of the World Trade Center at the stadium that’s home to the Colts. He was joined by Columbus firefighter Chris Owens, who is a Columbus resident.
More than 500 men, women and children participated in the climb, which honors the memory of the 343 firefighters who lost their lives after the attack on the twin towers in New York City. It was conducted during the annual Fire Department Instructors Conference, which draws more than 30,000 firefighters every April.
Proceeds from the stair climb benefit the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, and this year’s event raised $100,000.
Retired chief Bobby Halton, editor-in-chief of Fire Engineering Magazine, commended the firefighters at the event for keeping the memory of those lost alive.
“The tradition here is training and excellence. The tradition here is dedication and devotion,” Halton said in a news release.
This was 30-year-old Spencer’s second time walking the stairways.
“I did it last year and met all the others from across the country and was pretty moved by the ceremony and how it was put together in remembrance. It was very touching to honor them,” he said.
Spencer, who lives in Crothersville, said his father was a firefighter for Jackson-Washington Township Volunteer Fire Department when he was growing up.
“I remember growing up and hearing his stories, so that was always in the back of my mind,” he said.
Eventually, the son chose a similar path and says he loves helping and meeting people on a daily basis while always having new experiences.
“I tried to go for some other degree, and I kept coming back to this one,” he said.
Spencer works not only as the fire chief for Crothersville’s fire department (10 years on the department) but has been with the Columbus Fire Department for two years and puts in some hours at the Harrison Township Volunteer Fire Department in Columbus.
How does he manage all three jobs?
“Very carefully,” he said with a laugh.
To train for the climb, Spencer said, he and Owens would put on their gear and train using the stairs leading to their bedrooms at the Columbus fire station where they work. They started with about 30 flights and gradually worked up to 110.
“It’s a challenge,” he said. “It’s a whole new ballgame when you’re in full gear with air pack.”
At the event, he said the first lap is easy because he feels energized.
“They give a speech, and you walk as a big group, there’s bagpipes playing, and you’re ready to go,” he said.
But then it starts to hurt.
“Your calves are on fire, and you really just have to clear your mind and focus on the depth right in front of you,” he said. “You’ve got the rest of the firefighters cheering and pushing you on.”
He also said there were kids keeping the participants motivated.
“There was probably nine to 10 kids giving everybody high-fives. That got me,” he said.
The picture of Waters clipped to the front of his gear and the many other badges around him on other firefighters kept him inspired. After about an hour and 40 minutes of repetitive stairways, Spencer finished.
He said he plans to do the climb again next year to again honor and remember those who gave their lives and also to help raise money for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. The organization’s mission is to provide resources to assist survivors in rebuilding their lives and work within the fire service community to reduce firefighter deaths and injuries.
“They marched into that building not knowing if they’re going to come down or not.”
Ben Spencer, on firefighters who gave their lives on 9/11
Name: Ben Spencer
Occupation: Fire chief of Crothersville-Vernon Township Volunteer Fire Department and firefighter/paramedic for Columbus Fire Department and Harrison Township Volunteer Fire Department.
What he did: Recently climbed the 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.