Hundreds Commemorate 9/11 Victims At Ben Hill Griffin Stadium

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Felipe Clavijo-Garcia was born after Sept.11, 2001, but he remembers learning about the event as a 6-year-old elementary student in Miami. He remembers his teacher talking about planes crashing into buildings and people losing their lives.

He said he didn’t understand the gravity of the event at that time because he was young, but now as an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Florida, he wanted to take time out of his Saturday morning to remember those who lost their lives 20 years ago. 

Clavijo-Garcia was one of about 300 participants who gathered at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium to climb 110 flights at 8 a.m. Participants included UF students, faculty, firefighters, Gainesville residents and families. Some wore leggings, basketball shorts and tank tops, and others wore army green protective gear. From a distance, they looked like colorful lines snaking through silver seats at the stadium. 

“Watching two of the biggest towers crumble before your eyes is probably one of the most memorable moments you can have,” Clavijo-Garcia said. 

The 110 flights of stairs represented the number of flights in one of the twin towers, UF Collegiate Veteran Society President Savanna Turner said. Using the spaces between seats in the stadium, some participants went up the stairs 11 times to reach the 110 flights firefighters and other first responders traveled on 9/11 in New York City. 

The University of Florida Collegiate Veteran Society, an organization focused on supporting student veterans, started the event in 2017 to commemorate first responders who lost their lives on 9/11, Turner, a 33-year-old UF doctoral agricultural education student, said.

In 2020, the organization hosted a remote stadium climb due to the pandemic and collected $1,000 in donations for the UF Collegiate Veteran Society and Gainesville’s fire department.

The organization gave $500 to the fire department and used the other half to fund member conferences and to pay for veteran professional development opportunities such as resume workshops and headshots, she said. 

Through sponsorships, commemorative shirts and coins were shipped to donors. Modeled after virtual marathons, Turner said she used Eventbrite, a website, to collect donations and used hashtags to start a social media campaign for two weeks. 

This year, the organization followed the same model and collected donations on Eventbrite for the UF Collegiate Veteran Society and Alachua County Fire Rescue. 

The group also collected cash, but Turner said she didn’t know the total amount of money donated as of 10 a.m. Saturday.

As participants entered through Gate 18 at the stadium Saturday, Veteran Society members asked participants to sign in. 

Passing through the gates, the crowd dispersed. Some sat on the bleachers and waited for Turner and Alachua County Fire Rescue Chief Harold Theus to speak. Others immediately began to climb stairs. 

Chatter rang throughout the crowd as people talked, walked and listened under a cloudy sky. At about 9 a.m., Turner and Harold let the crowd begin to climb stairs. While some had already begun, the majority had sat on bleachers and listened to them speak. 

Braden Bodenstein, an 18-year-old UF international studies freshman, volunteered to lead participants around a designated path. The stadium was divided into two segments. On the right side, participants climbed at a slower pace with the words “THIS IS … GATOR COUNTRY” towering over their heads in bright blue. 

On the left side across those bleachers, participants climbed the stairs a bit quicker as pop and county songs played. Bodenstein helped those on the right side, holding up a Marine Corps flag for others to follow. 

He attended the event because he wanted to pay respect to those who lost their lives during 9/11. He said the event changed the world, and even though he didn’t see it, his world was shaped after the attack on the twin towers. 

“It’s an important event because it still shapes American history and my world today,” he said with sweat dripping down his reddened face. “I can see the reflections of 9/11 every time I go to the airport, every time I see the way people are treated by TSA agents.” 

While Bodenstein finished his 110 flights Saturday, other participants started climbing before the event. Elaine Turner, UF’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences Dean, started climbing more stairs on a daily basis Sept. 1 to meet the 110 flights. 

She works on a second floor, so when she took a break, she’d go up and down the stairs a few times. She finished the 110 on Saturday and was left sweaty, she said. 

She attended the event because her college sponsored the event through staff help and funds. She said the college includes many students and alumni who are veterans, and she wanted to remember the first responders not only lost on 9/11 but every day. 

“Every time you see one of the first responders going up and down the stairs with their gear, it just makes you want to try a little harder in not only this event, but in everything else,” she said. 

About Diane Hernandez

Diane is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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