Climbing to honor the fallen

ESPN’s Ken Boudreau (kneeling, far right) poses with fellow firefighters from Team 20A who participated in the 2nd Annual Nashville 9/11 Memorial Stairclimb.

Like many others, Ken Boudreau was overwhelmed with a feeling of helplessness during the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Boudreau and his colleagues at the Simsbury (Conn.) Volunteer Fire Department were not among the thousands of rescue workers who were called to respond to the crisis then.

But on the 10th anniversary of the tragedy, the 37-year firefighting veteran and longtime ESPN employee did something to honor the victims of the attacks.

Boudreau was one of 343 participants in the 2nd Annual Nashville 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb, an exercise that benefits the National Fallen Firefighters Association.

The 343 stairclimbers — each person representing a New York City firefighter who died in the World Trade Center collapse — climbed flights in the William R. Snodgrass Tennessee Tower.

The Nashville building stands 28 stories. To replicate the 110-story World Trade Center, the participants climbed from the parking garage to the top of the building and took an elevator to the bottom.

They repeated the cycle four times.

Each wore 60-to-80 pounds of full-fledged firefighting gear.

“It was very special to me to try to do something,” said Boudreau, an ESPN employee since 1979.

“Ten years ago, I wanted to do something and there was no opportunity.”

Boudreau recorded the video above with a portable camera secured by gaffers tape to his fire helmet.

“The first round of 28 flights, we did and we were tired. We rode the elevator down and got in line again,” said Boudreau, who was part of a seven-person team that had to move and stop in unison — leaving no one behind.

“Part way through the second climb, it got really tough to lift my legs. I was struggling.”

Like his fellow participants, Boudreau wore a lanyard bearing a picture of a fallen 9/11 rescue worker — in this case, Mike Lynch of New York’s Engine 40.

New York-based ESPN colleague Lori Berlin, who for 10 years has worked with the firehouse that lost 11 workers on 9/11, helped Boudreau begin a relationship with Engine 40.

Berlin introduced Boudreau to Ray Pfeifer, an Engine 40 firefighter who worked for seven months at ground zero.

After a phone conversation, Pfeifer sent Boudreau two patches to help represent Engine 40.

Lynch’s picture, the conversation with Pfeifer — who is battling cancer — and those patches were inspiring.

“I realized that I wasn’t climbing for me. I was climbing for the person whose picture hung around my neck,” Boudreau said.

“That helped me break through that wall of frustration. . . . ‘I can’t quit on this guy. Mike Lynch, he can’t do this. I will keep pushing.'”

Two days after the physically and emotionally draining exercise, Boudreau was back at work as ESPN’s Senior Director of Media Assets.

In that capacity, he’s the gatekeeper of “a little more than 2 million assets that the company has collected over the past 32 years,” Boudreau said.

When there’s a request for vintage ESPN video from the company’s archives or even the vast ABC Sports’ library, Boudreau and his Media Assets colleagues find the footage.

Playing the role of ESPN’s curator dovetails a bit with Boudreau’s passion for firefighting.

A lieutenant in the Simsbury Volunteer Fire Department, he sometimes finds himself on calls with his son Kellan, 24, and daughter Maggie, 23 — fellow firefighters.

Participating in various stairclimbs helps Boudreau maintain fitness. The Nashville event was his third climb this year.

“The one in Nashville intrigued me — 110 stories. I knew that was significantly more than anything I’d ever done,” he said.

“But I wanted to do something to connect with 9/11, so I signed up for it [in July].”

For the next two months, he intensified his training, adding a 10-pound barbell to a regimen on a Stairclimber that involved conquering a minimum of 111 stories, 4 or 5 days a week. Often, Boudreau wore a 40-pound weight vest and ankle weights.

Even with that preparation, the task of climbing 28 stories four times — 112 stories in all, actually — was extremely taxing.

“There was one point where I stopped and I took off my helmet and it looked like a sprinkler went off, I was absolutely soaked,” he said.

The ceremonies before and after the Nashville event — for example, each participant read the name of the New York City firefighter he or she represented, and rang a bell in that person’s honor — were emotionally wrenching.

“When I finished, I couldn’t say I’d do it again,” Boudreau said.

“But now, a couple of days later, there’s no doubt I’d do it again.”

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