Never Forget: Residents climb stairs to remember 9/11

HARLINGEN — Veronica Olivares stepped forward, rang a bell mounted to a slim oak tree, and then climbed several flights of stairs to commemorate the firefighters who died on 9/11.

As each person stepped forward Friday to participate in the “9/11 Memorial Stair Climb” at Valley Baptist Medical Center, he or she spoke the name of a fallen firefighter before entering the building. For a few, it was the name of a local firefighter recently deceased. Most however, spoke the name of one of the 343 New York City firefighters who died when the twin towers of the World Trade Center fell.

Olivares, now a nurse manager at Valley Baptist, remembered clearly what she was doing when terrorists slammed two passenger airliners into the buildings.

“We didn’t know how to take it at first,” said Olivares, who was a sophomore at Rio Hondo High School at the time.

“It was shocking,” she said as she waited her turn outside the Medical Arts Pavilion.

A Harlingen fire truck sat parked nearby with a large U.S. flag waving from a tower ladder. It was a poignant reminder of the image 19 years ago when firefighters mounted a flag in like fashion at ground zero in New York City. That iconic display was reminiscent of the photo of victorious servicemen raising the U.S. flag over Iwo Jima during World War II.

Olivares felt honored to be asked.

“I actually used to be a volunteer firefighter in Rio Hondo, so it’s just in remembrance of them and to kind of get everybody to remember that day,” she said.

Valley Baptist held the event as a token of appreciation for all first responders, said Jennifer Bartnesky-Smith, chief strategy officer for the hospital.

“Today we will have several members of our local first responders participate as well as several of our nursing members participating in a stair climb,” Bartnesky-Smith said.

She made special reference to the cloudy and misty sky and its significance to the somber moment, of the gravity of our times.

“This is a unique time in our history, now, today, as well as the coronavirus,” she said. “It’s particularly humbling to see our community coming together once again to remember an important day in our nation’s history.”

Veronica Olivares, Valley Baptist Emergency Center Manager, walks down the stairs carrying two flags, one of which was the Flag of Heroes and had names of all the emergency service personnel who lost their lives during the 9/11 attacks. (Maricela Rodriguez/Valley Morning Star)

That’s what Olivares remembered most, the solidarity arising from tragedy on that day 19 years ago.

“What really impacted me was just seeing everybody getting together,” she said. “The thoughts and prayers and everybody building each other up and trying to rebuild us again was what I remember most about it.”

Dr. Christopher Romero, internal medicine specialist at Valley Baptist, also climbed the stairs in memory of the fallen.

“I think it’s important that we don’t forget what happened, and that we especially don’t forget the sacrifices that our first responders made that fateful day,” he said.

Romero, who is also a volunteer with the Laguna Vista Fire Department, stepped forward to ring the bell. He spoke first of the 343 but also the name “Dean Pennington” a local volunteer firefighter recently passed.

“We lost one of our own this year,” he said before falling silent for a moment.

Romero was a young student at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi when he heard the news.

“I was in the student center studying,” he said. “They wheeled a television into the area and put the news on and we watched the towers come down.”

As he and his girlfriend — and future wife — left the building he said, “We’re at war. I don’t know who with, but we’re at war.”

And so it is 19 years later, the country’s still fighting terrorism, and the world is fighting a microbe that has inserted itself into every corner of human existence.