HARLINGEN — “Never Forget.”

The phrase is as prevalent now as it was 20 years ago when two planes struck the World Trade Center.

“This event is to make sure we never forget the sacrifices of the first responders who lost their lives on 9/11 20 years ago Saturday,” said Manny Vela, CEO of Valley Baptist Medical Center.

Vela was speaking to police officers, firefighters, Border Patrol officers, and hospital staff who’d gathered Thursday morning for the 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb. Several had signed up to climb flights of stairs at the hospital’s Medical Arts Pavilion to commemorate the 343 first responders who were climbing the stairs of the twin towers when they collapsed.

The event was especially poignant to Harlingen Fire Chief Rafael Balderas.

“What this day means to me is remembering the sacrifices of not only the 343 firefighters but all the first responders on that day,” he said. “Tragedies like that, we prepare for them, but we never expect them. The individuals that went up those 110 flights knew what they were getting into, and that’s true heroism.”

As the local first responders made the climb Thursday at Valley Baptist, they seemed to feel the gravity of what they were doing.

“I remember, that day I was in my sixth grade class,” said Gabriel Hernandez Jr., registered diagnostic medical stenographer at Valley Baptist.

“I was in Perkins Middle School in Brownsville and I remember all the TVs were turned on after the first flight crashed into the first tower,” recalled Hernandez, 31.

“It was shocking to everybody,” he said. “Everybody couldn’t believe what was going on. We absolutely didn’t do any schoolwork the rest of that day. The teachers were of course trying to calm everybody down and figure out what was going on.”

CEO Manny Vela, of VBMC-Harlingen, addresses the crowd in front of the stairwell where volunteers will climb 288 steps in tribute Thursday at the 9-11 Memorial Stair Climb at Valley Baptist Medical Center Harlingen.(Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

Andie Torres thought she was going to climb the fire truck ladder in the hospital parking lot Thursday.

“I was really looking forward to that,” said Torres, an HR specialist and administrative assistant at Valley Baptist.

“But actually this probably has more meaning to it if you think about it,” Torres said. “The day that 9/11 occurred, the firefighters and first responders were climbing the stairs inside the building, so this is actually more memorialized.”

She, like so many, remembered what she was doing when she heard the news.

“I was actually living in Houston,” she said. “I was at work at Macy’s at the time. We were in a meeting, and the news came on and we just saw what was happening. I was pregnant with my first child so it kind of freaked me out a bit. They had to tell me to calm down.”

During the chaos of that morning, terror swept through the country as people wondered if more attacks would occur.

“My brother lived in Dallas and they were talking about how FedEx might be an area that was being targeted and he lived close to there,” she said. “It’s just a lot of emotions going on.”

Mayor Chris Boswell remembered something else about the days following the attacks.

“For me there are two things that stand out about 9/11,” Boswell said. “One especially in these days it seems like there are a lot of division in all levels of our society. In the wake of 9/11 this country came solidly together. There was a unification of our country and the people in this country that I had never seen in my lifetime. One of the things I think it’s important to remember about 9/11 is that we can glimpse that memory of unification and sense of oneness that we had.”

The second thing, he noted, was the heroism of firefighters and first responders who died that day, and serve as an inspiration to many.

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Photo Gallery: 9/11 remembrance at Valley Baptist Medical Center