“The first 12 are the easiest,” says Dee Massey, as he rounds the first landing of the parking deck stairwell in Waynesville.
Massey is decked out in fireman’s gear, and he and five other firefighters will spend the next 90 minutes climbing the six flights to the top, coming back down and then doing it all over again.
They are training for the 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb, a rigorous challenge to climb 110 flights in their turnout gear to honor the 343 first responders who lost their lives at the World Trade Center 10 years ago.
Massey, his son Chris and their friend Ross Escobedo will join more than 340 other firefighters for the memorial climb at various locations around the country on Sunday. They’re headed to Myrtle Beach.
Massey has been training for the event for two months, and he’s right about the first 12. Two trips up and back down the concrete stairwell is deceptively easy, even for these guys, decked out in full gear. With their full complement of equipment, it adds about 70 pounds to their body weight. On the first two rounds, they emerge onto the roof of the parking deck and start doing pushups before making the trip back down.
As time wears on, however, each round up and down gets harder and harder. The weight alone is difficult. The lion’s share of the extra bulk is in an oxygen tank pack, which provides anywhere from 15 to 35 minutes of air, depending on your size and how in shape you are.
It’s about 40 pounds, the size of a 6-year-old, and wears like a backpack, though oddly rigid. A hip belt helps support the weight. It looks like the seatbelt from an old Buick, and after a few flights, it starts to push uncomfortably on the hips.
The real challenge, however, is the heat. Bedecked in fire clothes, the climbers’ skin struggles to breathe, making each staircase a bigger challenge. By the third round, sweat is dripping off the end of every nose. Each trip to the top is accompanied less by pushups and more by short breaks, slouched against the deck walls and soaking in the fresh air.
They’ve started the climb at 7 p.m., taking advantage of the cooler weather that dusk brings. Even in the cool of the day, the un-air-conditioned stairwell can be sweltering, and there’s a wafting stench rounding the fifth landing, which only intensifies with heat.
In this crew, some are in better shape than others. Dee and Chris Massey and Escobedo have been preparing for the event. The other three are just here for the good physical training it provides.
For firemen in rural areas such as Western North Carolina, it’s a kind of training they rarely encounter, but Dee Massey says that the last two months have made him realize that doing drills like this should be a must for everyone in his profession.
“It’s probably the hardest exercise I’ve done, and I run four or five miles every day. Stairs are a little different,” says Massey, who is a professional firefighter with the Town of Waynesville and heads up fire training at Haywood Community College.
He’s been in the business for more than 20 years, and has mostly trained for smaller buildings. Waynesville’s tallest structure is only six stories.
“I never really have trained to go up any higher, but when you start adding 60 and 100 floors to it, it makes you realize you need to be in a little better shape,” says Massey.
The others agree with him, which is why they’re here.
Ricky Mehaffey Jr. is from the Clyde firehouse, and he’s been on the job for 10 years. Too many firemen die, he says, from heart attacks, because they’re not out doing these things.
The Masseys and Escobedo are doing the stair climb to remember those killed by a horrible tragedy. Each will be running with the name and picture of a fallen firefighter from that day 10 years ago.
But training for that has made them a kind of advocate group for preventing more tragic deaths among firemen whose bodies aren’t ready for the strain and heat of the job.
“There’s an average of 100 firefighters a year die in the United States. And the biggest majority of those deaths are due to heart attacks,” says Massey. “So the only thing I can think of is to keep my heart in shape.”
And he wants other firemen to do the same. Today, fighting fire is a brotherhood, and Massey is keen to take care of his brothers.
That, he says, is what Sept. 11 gave the profession; a sense of camaraderie born of tragedy that has lasted for a decade.
“The profession has changed drastically since 9/11,” says Massey. “It’s become a bigger brotherhood.”
Where once, the ties stretched only to your firehouse, now they reach across the country. That shows even here on the parking deck roof, these six guys representing five different fire stations, seven if you count that Escobedo works for three.
The two youngest, Chris Massey and Dustin Greene, became firemen in the post-Sept. 11 era, part of a generation whose childhood was shaped by the event. Massey was 10 when the towers went down. Greene was 9.
The Myrtle Beach stair climb is part of a nation-wide series of memorial climbs, and on Sunday in cities around the country, 343 firemen and other first responders will mount 110 flights of stairs in buildings from Atlanta to San Diego. Some will be in full gear, some won’t. Some will climb all 110 flights, and others will do a fraction of that, to honor their brotherhood, and remember those whose deaths created it.
When the World Trade Center fell nearly 10 years ago, there was little left of its once-majestic towers but scattered bits of steel and a sorrow that blanketed the nation.
Now as the site is rebuilt, that steel is being ferried to communities around the country and the world to commemorate the lives lost that Tuesday.
The tiny town of Clyde, chosen from among 1,500 vying for the honor, is one of the lucky locales to garner hunks of the twisted metal that once framed the towers.
The steel rode into town with a guard of honor last week after being trucked by local firemen from New York’s JFK Airport. A hangar there has become the staging area for World Trade Center artifacts as they await distribution to monuments across the globe.
Mitchell Sellars, chief of the Clyde Volunteer Fire Department and one of the men who went to ferry the steel back down the Eastern seaboard, said the warehouse full of the towers’ remains is an unreal sight.
“There’s a bike rack that has a lot of the bicycles still chained to it that were pretty much destroyed. There was only one of the people who made it back alive,” said Sellars of the charred bikes’ owners.
He said that it was in honor of the days’ victims that the department decided last year to put in an application for some of the steel, after hearing, via the Internet, of the plan to give it out.
Altogether, there were 1,500 applicants who asked the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for remnants of the wreckage. According to Steve Coleman, a spokesman for the port authority, they have about 1,040 pieces to give out and 450 have been distributed already.
The criteria for getting the metal is simple: the applicant must be a non-profit or government organization and have a plan to display the pieces publicly.
The plan for the two pieces Clyde now owns — two six-foot-long I-beams, weighing in at around 1,000 pounds — is not yet solidified. But Sellars said the department is in talks with local architects, trying to work out a design that would be fitting.
The monument will eventually sit in front of the fire department on Carolina Boulevard, commemorating the 2,819 people who died in the WTC bombings, especially, Sellars said, the firefighters.
“We just feel like its something that we can create a memorial, not only for the citizens that lost their lives but mainly the firefighters that lost their lives,” said Sellars. When he and fellow firefighters went to New York to collect the beams, they spent some time visiting other fire departments around the city. The experience, he said, was heart-wrenching, even 10 years later.
“It’s still very close to home for a lot of those guys because they worked with them, beside them every day,” said Sellars. Sellars is hopeful that Clyde’s memorial to the 343 firefighters and paramedics killed in the collapse of the towers will be unveiled by this September 11.
Since the designs are in the planning stages, it’s unclear how much the monument will cost, but the department plans to launch fund drives to help make it a reality.
As for the rest of the steel, Coleman said he’s hopeful that the port authority will have the remaining portions donated to worthy memorials within the year. The pieces are doled out on a first-come, first-served basis to eligible groups, but since the response was so robust, applications aren’t being taken anymore.
“We’re already overloaded with applications,” said Coleman, “but the ones that we did take were from entities that could ensure that it would be in a public display.”
The lion’s share of the steel from the World Trade Center was sold, to be recycled into new and reusable steel. Around 150 pieces were retained for research, while the rest is being kept in JFK’s Hangar 17, waiting for Ground Zero’s memorial and museum to be christened on the tenth anniversary of the attacks.
Swain County will continue contracting with the Bryson City Fire Department to provide county fire service, despite threatening to cut ties with the department after it asked the county for more money.
Earlier this year, the county balked at a request from the town fire department to up the amount of its contract from $40,000 to $70,000 per year for fire protection provided to county residents outside the town limits of Bryson City.
County Manager Kevin King countered that the county would not only not pay more, but would cancel the contract altogether and build two new fire stations of its own — all by July 1 of this year. It was an ambitious plan to choose a site and build the stations in just four months, especially since the county didn’t have any money set aside to do so.
Not surprisingly, the plan did not materialize quickly enough, causing the county to renew its contract with the town department for another year.
“West Swain is trying to develop a plan to do a satellite station in the outlying areas, but right now, it’s just not developed yet,” explained King. “We just needed an extension of time with the Bryson City Fire Department in order for them to do that, so they asked the town a few months ago if they’d be willing to entertain a year’s extension.”
The town fire department agreed, though it won’t be getting any of the additional money it had initially requested. Still, Bryson City Fire Chief Joey Hughes said he was satisfied with the outcome. The town gets to retain its call volume and won’t loose county funding.
“I think it comes to a real good agreement, not just for us, but for the taxpayers and everybody,” said Hughes.
The contract also includes one important change — it provides the Bryson City department with more flexibility in how it spends county dollars. Before, the majority of the county’s money could only be spent on certain things: specifically, the maintenance of two trucks and half the cost of the building maintenance.
Now, “we just bill them quarterly and get our whole $40,000 that way,” Hughes said. “It’s giving us some more flexibility.” For instance, the town department can spend money on gear and radios rather than truck and building maintenance, if it determines one need is greater than the other.
“In a roundabout way, they did up the money,” by providing more flexibility, Hughes said.
However, the county has warned that the arrangement with the town won’t last longer than it has to. Instead, it’s just a stopgap to give the county more time to hammer out its plans to build new fire stations of its own.
“The county is looking at long-term fire planning for the entire county over the next five years,” King said. “Basically, we just passed the year’s contract to give us another 12 months to work on the long-range planning process.”
Hughes is skeptical that the county’s plan to build two new fire stations will work. He wonders how the county will get the money for the project, since there are already capital projects like the senior center that sit uncompleted.
“Already, they have a building they can’t finish, and now they’re applying to build another building,” Hughes mused.
The town of Sylva continues to be plagued by a financial mistake made last year in which $2 million in town funds were invested in accounts not allowed by state statute.
At the town commission meeting last week, Mayor Brenda Oliver informed the board that the Local Government Commission is not going to process a loan application for the fire department expansion until the LGC is satisfied proper procedures are in place to prevent future mistakes.
Interim Town Manger Chris Crater said the LGC is supposed to approve a loan of $2.3 million for the fire department expansion that is scheduled to go to bid in May.
The LGC was also concerned that the town is not adequately documenting credit card expenses. Carter said he wrote back to the LGC last week stating that the town now has procedures in place for investing public finds and documenting credit card use. In regards to the investments, Carter stated in his letter that the town commissioners immediately addressed the issue once it was discovered by transferring the funds to allowable accounts. Carter added in his letter to LGC that the town has a comprehensive set of policies dealing with cash management. The policy states that the town may only invest public money into the North Carolina Capital Management Trust and fully insured FDIC accounts.
The town had invested the $2 million into mutual funds that were not allowed under state statute because they are considered too risky. Furthermore, Carter noted in his letter that former Town Manager Jay Denton, who was responsible for the investments, was terminated over the matter.
As for the credit card issue, Carter stated in his letter that the town commissioners addressed that issue by amending its policy in December. Carter said on Monday, April 6 that he had not heard a response from the LGC. Mayor Oliver said she thinks the LGC will see that the town has addressed the issues and approve the borrowing for the fire department expansion.
By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer
Two Swain County commissioners are having second thoughts about a move to end contracted fire service with the town of Bryson City after listening to the impassioned pleas of volunteer firefighters who shared their comments at a meeting last week.
Town officials had requested more money from the county to match the high number of calls firefighters were answering outside town limits. The county instead proposed ending the contract altogether and building two new stations of its own, leaving firefighters from the Bryson City Fire Department up in arms.
Commissioners Steve Moon and David Monteith were initially supportive of the proposal to build a new station at the industrial park and in the Ela community, but emerged from the meeting with changed minds after hearing a group of Bryson City firefighters air their concerns.
“Those guys have been here a long time, and I think their wishes should be given full attention, and should even maybe take priority,” said Commissioner Steve Moon. “And I was all for building those substations before the meeting Monday night. I’ve changed my mind.”
Moon had qualms about the timing of the project, which will cost an estimated $600,000 to $700,000 to build the stations and buy two fire trucks.
“I don’t think it’s the right time with the state of the economy and our county, and the passion some of these firefighters feel for their fire department,” he said. “Maybe we should table it for a year.”
Monteith also was less sure of the proposal following the meeting.
“I went to that meeting feeling pretty good about what I wanted, but came out and there’s still some answers I need to get,” Monteith said.
Bryson City Fire Chief Joey Hughes, an outspoken opponent of the plan, said he felt commissioners learned something from the meeting.
“I’m not saying someone lied to them, but I think they had some misleading information, and I think we cleared that up and they listened,” he said.
The county’s plan to create new fire stations was largely spearheaded by County Manager Kevin King.
Hughes also questions the project’s timing.
“Maybe one day this might be the right thing to do, but right now it’s not with the economy the way it is,” he said.
Commissioner Chairman Glenn Jones, however, did not appear to waver in his support of the new fire stations. In fact, he didn’t realize others on the board no longer supported it.
“I think the consensus of the board is that we’re going to contract with West Swain, but we haven’t voted on it,” Jones said.
Under the proposal, the county would contract with the West Swain Fire Department. The station would be in charge of applying for loans to fund the new stations and two new trucks, as well as hiring someone to construct the stations.
Jones did not have reservations about the county’s ability to pay the estimated $600,000 to $700,000 the new stations and trucks would cost. The county will divert what it currently contributes to the Bryson and Qualla departments to make loan payments on the new stations, and would only kick in an extra $20,000 over what it pays now.
“I believe that we can handle that, yes,” he said.
The positions of Commissioner Genevieve Lindsay and Phillip Carson are not known.
Moon said he saw a need for more town involvement in making a decision over county fire service. Hughes has bemoaned a lack of communication between the county and town.
For example, a state fire inspector met with county officials several months ago to provide his opinion on county fire service. The Bryson Fire Department was never informed, Hughes said.
“I didn’t even know he was coming,” Hughes said. “If they had wanted to improve something, why didn’t they include everybody in it?”
Moon urged more town input in the process, and was surprised there hadn’t been.
“I thought that they would be more involved, but they did seem caught off-guard, which is another reason to table it,” said Moon. “We need to work together, not as two separate entities.”
“We need some good old sit down coffee drinking meeting to hammer out everything,” Monteith agreed.
In the mean time, Bryson City Mayor Brad Walker said the town board is considering its options should the county decide to terminate its contract, which is worth $47,000 per year. If the county did so, the town fire department would lose about two-thirds of its call volume, and the number of volunteers needed would likely be reduced.
“We don’t know where we are going, but we have two options,” said Walker. “Either go with the new (county) entity, or make a smaller fire department.”
Walker said the town board will meet with the state fire marshal on March 16 to discuss options.
Meanwhile, the county is in no rush to make a decision. Initially, the county had wanted to get the first new station up and running by mid-summer, said County Manager Kevin King. But with both Moon and Monteith wanting to look into other options, that timeline will likely be pushed back.
“I think the public needs to know more about it,” Monteith said.
Moon said this is one of the biggest challenges commissioners have dealt with in a long while, and it’s keeping him up at night.
“Several nights I’ve laid awake,” Moon said. “I want to do the right thing, for our citizens and our people, and I pray about it. I pray for the Lord’s guidance.”
Hughes says he’s representing the wishes of his 34 volunteer firemen in speaking out against the project.
“I wouldn’t be trying to fix something that ain’t broke,” Hughes said.
Hughes also promised that his volunteers won’t leave the Bryson City Fire Department to join the ranks of firefighters at the new county stations, and expressed doubt about the county’s ability to staff the stations.
“The ones that are already in my department, they’re not leaving,” Hughes said.
Hughes says the county proposal would duplicate services. An Ela station would cover the same area the Qualla Fire Department already covers. A new station at the industrial park would also duplicate service that already exists, being “so close” to the Bryson City Fire Department, Hughes said.
If Hughes had his way, he would build additional stations in different locations than the county proposed. In order of importance, Hughes would place substations in Laurel Branch, on the west end of the Gorge, in Brushy Creek, and in Whittier.
Prominently displayed in the window of the Bryson City Fire Department last week were several signs with the same defiant words: “We serve people, not politics.”
The message was a direct reference to a controversy heating up between the town’s volunteer fire department and Swain County commissioners. The two are at odds over how much the county should contribute to the fire department for handling calls outside the town limits. When the Bryson fire department recently asked for more, the county decided it would stop contributing altogether come July. Instead, Swain County will build two new fire stations and buy two new trucks of its own. It will stop contributing to the existing fire stations in Bryson City and Qualla to fund the new ones.
Since 1992, the county has contributed to the Bryson City Fire Department since it provides service beyond the town limits. It is one of three fire stations in the county, along with one in West Swain and one in Alarka. According to Bryson City fire chief Joey Hughes, the Bryson Fire Department was responding to the lion’s share of calls — nearly two-thirds of the total.
“We’ve run more calls in a month than other departments run in a year,” Hughes said.
The county paid the Bryson City department $47,000 this year.
In December, the town fire department asked the county to up the amount to $70,000 to reflect the high volume of calls the department was responding to.
“The letter indicated that they needed more money to operate the department, that they weren’t getting enough to do it,” said County Manager Kevin King.
Instead of responding to the fire department’s request, the county has opted to end their contract altogether starting July 1.
“If we’re going to spend that type of money, it would be better to increase services outside the city limit,” King said.
The county’s new plan is to create a larger, unified department with no involvement from the town. The goal: provide more comprehensive fire service and decrease fire insurance rates for residents.
But Hughes and his department say the county’s decision isn’t a good one. They say the county doesn’t have a sufficient setup to handle the volume of services the town department currently provides. The decision will hurt the town department, they say, but more importantly, it will compromise the safety of Swain’s residents.
“Our budget will be cut in half, and our calls will be cut by two-thirds under the decision,” said Hughes. “We’re not going to be hurting that bad, but it’s the citizens of Swain County that are going to suffer.”
The town of Bryson City contributed $42,000 to the fire department this year.
The county’s new plan calls for buying two new fire trucks and building two new firestations — one in the Ela community, and one at the county’s industrial park. The West Swain fire department will oversee the plan.
West Swain will borrow about $600,000 to $700,000 to fund the project. The county plans to funnel the resources it is giving to the Bryson City and the Qualla fire departments to help cover the loan payments.
In addition to the cost of building the fire stations and buying the trucks, the new plan would cost the county an additional $20,000 per year, which it plans to factor into next year’s budget. Ideally, at least one of the new substations would be up in running in just five months, King said — roughly the time the town’s contract expires.
King said the new stations will mean decreased response times, which in turn would save county residents about $600,000 each year on their fire insurance premiums, King said.
Under the new plan, rescue equipment such as a Jaws of Life would be available at each of the substations, providing residents with an added safety feature.
But Hughes doesn’t think the county’s plan is feasible, and questions why they’re trying to change something that has proven effective — or why they would want to duplicate a service that’s already in place.
“We know what we’ve got works, and what they’re trying to do is untested,” Hughes said. “What they’ve already got is best for the taxpayer. You’re not crossing district lines, and there’s not going to be a controversy.”
Indeed, King argues that Hughes and his department don’t like the new plan in large part because it would mean others would infringe on territory the town department has covered for years.
“They’re just upset because they’ve had that territory for a long time, and they’re not going to be a part of the solution,” King said.
But Hughes said the county never asked his department to be part of the solution.
“Whenever they started planning all this, they didn’t include the town or our fire department in this; they went to the other fire departments and talked to them about it,” he said.
Hughes doubts the county’s ability to execute its plan with the money allocated.
“With that dollar figure, there’s no way under the sun that they can do it,” Hughes said.
And though King said he has assurances from the county substations that they’ll have enough personnel, Hughes wonders if the stations can recruit the manpower to pull it off. His station currently has 34 volunteers; the other two have eight.
“They’ll get enough names on paper, but getting enough qualified, dedicated people is going to be a problem to keep up the response time that we’ve got now,” Hughes contends. “This day and time, it’s hard to get volunteers that are reliable and good at what they do.”
Hughes said it’s critical to have a big pool of volunteers to pull from, because most work full-time. If a fire emergency happens during a weekday, 10 out of 34 volunteers may show up, he said. That number would be closer to two or three volunteers if the same percentage showed up at a smaller station.
Hughes planned to reason with commissioners to keep the Bryson City Fire Department’s contract at a special called meeting Monday night (March 2). But while Hughes calls the county’s new plan, “a shady deal,” King said the fire department has blown the whole thing out of proportion.
“They’re trying to turn it into something it actually is not,” he said. “We’re talking about public safety for the entire county in an effective manner.”
A proposed expansion to the Sylva Volunteer Fire Department building could be up in the air now that the project has come in almost $500,000 more than expected.
The overruns are due to parking and drainage issues that weren’t originally thought of.
The cost has risen from $1.89 million to $2.38 million.
The 25 percent increase is mostly due to extra parking spaces. Sylva town ordinances require an additional 16 parking places would have to be put in if the expansion were built, Interim Sylva Manager Chris Carter said.
Most towns mandate maximum and minimum parking spaces based on the size of the building the parking lot serves. In this case, a bigger building forces them to put in more parking.
There is currently a dirt cliff where the additional parking would go, and it would require expensive dirt work to make way for the parking, Carter said. The cost amounts to roughly $30,000 per extra parking space.
The town is moving forward on the project by seeking a finance company, and Carter hopes bids for the project can be approved by mid-March.
However, the county, which would fund the entire project, has not decided to move forward now that the cost has increased.
Sylva Fire Chief Mike Beck approached the commissioners last week about the project, but the commissioners said they would have to study the issue at their workshop on capital projects in February.
Carter said he can understand that the county wants to further consider funding the project now that the cost has increased.
The fire department expansion would add four bays, a meeting room, office space, sleeping quarters, a laundry room, kitchen and storage. Beck said the expansion is needed because the county has grown.
The fire department was built in 1980, Beck said.