STONE MOUNTAIN, Ga. — Firefighter Matthew Rusk remembers September 11, 2001, in vivid detail. The images of the collapsing towers of the World Trade Center and the gaping hole in the Pentagon are seared in his memory.
"I was in high school and I remember being turned on on all the TVs and just at the end of the day were all at home, just kind of take it all in," Rusk said.
The events of that day prompted him to join the military once he turned 18. He later became a firefighter. He was surrounded by his fellow firefighters from the Fayette County Fire Department, as they prepared to climb to the summit of Stone Mountain 21 years later.
The climb was organized to honor the first responders who gave the ultimate sacrifice.
"For me, it's, you know, about keeping that oath. And when you say you're never going to forget, you know, you don't forget," he said.
Hundreds of firefighters, police officers, paramedics and their families met at the bottom of Stone Mountain Trail. Their walk began at 9:03 a.m., the same time the second plane crashed into the south tower.
This is the eighth year the climb has taken place. Over the years, it's grown into an event that had brought first responders from places like South Carolina and Palm Beach, Florida.
"We started out with four firefighters. We made the climb. We started out a little later. It was very hot and it was a tough physical challenge. But we wanted to make a memorial to those on 911," Keith Harris said.
Harris is the division chief for the Fayette County Fire Department. He organized the climb and has been a part of the process for almost a decade. Sunday morning, the misty rain made for slippery rocks. Harris said his firefighters wanted to move forward with the climb, even while weighed down with all of their equipment.
"Some of these firefighters made the ultimate sacrifice. They knew that they weren't going to make it when they started climbing. And they did their job," Harris said. "They were there to rescue people, get as many out as they could. And it was a great honor. They gave the ultimate sacrifice. I think anybody any firefighter or police officer in public safety would do the same thing today."
The Sentiment was shared by Fayetteville Police Deputy Chief Robert Mask. For him, the climb is a way to carry on the memory of the first responders who were killed. Something he said is important as time goes on.
"I think a lot of people lose that aspect of it. You know, it's just... more than the event itself," he said.
Mask said he was home sick when the terrorist attacks happened. When he saw the images on the news, they hit him hard.
"It hurt me. And you know as well as it hurt the rest of the country. So there's something I'll never forget in my lifetime," he said.
Mask pointed out that there are people joining the police force who don't have memories of September 11, 2001, and this climb is a way for them to get a sense of how important the day is.
The climbers were accompanied by bagpipes who stopped to play during each marker of time during that fateful day. Leading the group was Captain Travis Mills of the Henry County Fire Department who had a personal tie to the attacks 21 years ago.
"I have a cousin through marriage that was under the pile with FDNY and several other friends that were there. And for me during the day, it's thinking about what they... were going through," he said.
Captain Mills said he had just started working in Atlanta on the day of the attacks. His first instinct was to go to New York to find his cousin.
Sporting a worn FDNY baseball cap, Captain Mills led the musicians in a rendition of Amazing Grace as those present kneeled.
"We're getting so many people that are coming into the fire service and public safety that have never weren't even alive when September 11, 2001, happened. And so it's important for us to pass this on to the next generations," he said.