Words & Images by Sarah Vasquez
Marfa–“You got this, baby. You got this,” Jessie Peña said as he encouraged his son, Nathan, during his last steps of the 9/11 Tower Challenge. Wearing full firefighter gear borrowed from the Marfa Volunteer Fire Department, the Marfa High School senior walked the equivalent of 110 stories (or 2,200 steps) at Martin Field to honor the 343 firefighters who lost their lives on September 11, 2001.
Nathan walked in memory of Christopher Santora, a probationary firefighter in the New York City Fire Department. He chose Santora because of the number 23. Santora was 23 years old when he lost his life on 9/11. Nathan is graduating from Marfa High School in 2023. The 17-year-old may have been born four years after the attacks, but he aspires to become a firefighter.
“I always saw firefighters as the strongest,” said Nathan. “I figured I was one of the most strongest at the school, so I try to be a leader and try to do what they do, because that’s what I want to do in the future.”
Nathan has always been around firefighting. His dad, Jessie, has been in emergency services for 27 years and was a firefighter for six years when 9/11 happened. He’s currently an EMT-Paramedic for the City of Marfa and also volunteers for the fire department as a teacher. When Jessie was studying at Texas A&M to become a firefighter, Nathan had a little bunker bag of his own that he’d carry around.
“That was his diaper bag,” said Annabel, Nathan’s mom. “He would see all the firefighters carrying their big old duffel bags and he’d carry his little duffel bag too.”
She also mentioned that his first birthday had a firefighter theme. When Nathan graduates from Marfa High School this spring, he is going to get his EMT Basic with the intention to serve in the U.S. Air Force and become an aircraft rescue firefighter. A month leading up to today’s challenge, he practiced by wearing a 60 pound weighted vest as he walked up and down the stairs at the football field. That’s also if he wasn’t practicing for football, cross country or powerlifting.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Annabel said while fighting back tears. “He’s always doing things that’s just… wow. But I’m so proud of him and of course, as a mom, I’m always going to support him in everything that he does.”
Nathan wore bracelets with messages of encouragement, including “Stay humble” and “Pain is temporary,” on his wrists during the challenge. Occasionally he’d take a break to drink water or catch his breath, but he finished walking a little over 2,200 steps in an hour. He only had one word when asked how he felt, “tired.” After he rests, Nathan will write a letter to Santora’s family, letting them know about his tribute.