At every turn in the stairwell — two per floor in the tallest building west of the Mississippi River — posters dedicated to those fighting, suffering or claimed by lymphoma and leukemia …
At every turn in the stairwell — two per floor in the tallest building west of the Mississippi River — posters dedicated to those fighting, suffering or claimed by lymphoma and leukemia were hung to inspire the firefighters racing up the stairs of Seattle’s Columbia Center.
As he headed up the stairs in full gear, Powell Volunteer Fire Department captain Pete DiPilla found himself looking at the faces on the posters and reading the words “In Honor Of” above many of the portraits. On the 36th floor, he saw Buffalo Bill Museum curator Jeremy Johnston. DiPilla had a photo of Johnston taped to his helmet to show support for his current fight; the Powell resident is battling non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Then, somewhere around the 50th floor, DiPilla noticed a poster featuring a little girl which read “In memory of” above her picture. Tears began to flow with about 20 floors left in the race.
“I have three girls of my own, and my youngest is not quite 2, so it hit home for me,” he said.
DiPilla, who admitted he spent most of his workouts hiking in the backcountry, found the exercise more strenuous than he figured in his first attempt at the LLS (Leukemia & Lymphoma Society) Firefighter Stairclimb. Yet he was driven by his teammates and those the department honored with their efforts: Johnston and DiPilla’s family member, Mike Creamer.
Creamer was recently elected as the chief of the Witmer Fire Department in Pennsylvania. The town, about an hour east of Philadelphia, has a population of just under 500. Creamer was also recently diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, and his invasive treatments started in late February.
“As brothers-in-arms, we decided to honor him — and Jeremy — in our climb …,” DiPilla wrote in a Facebook post.
Creamer’s wife, Desiree, posted a message on Facebook, explaining that while DiPilla and Creamer live on opposite sides of the country, “distance means nothing when it comes to brotherhood and family.”
A team of seven Powell firefighters took on the stairclimb: climbers DiPilla, assistant chief Jason Fields, Bret Bassett, Brady Melton, Thomas Watts and Scott Shoopman, along with tank manager Geoff Hovivian.
All six of the Powell department’s climbers completed the challenge, climbing 69 floors and 1,356 steps “in honor of those affected by [blood cancer], in hopes to fund further research to help them, and the many others affected by such a tragic diseases,” DiPilla said. The Powell team raised more than $9,000 in donations for the cause.
Shoopman was the first to reach the top of Columbia Center, crossing the finish line in 213th place out of 2,000 participants with a time of 17:41. Bassett was close behind, finishing 301st in 18:35.
Hovivian was stationed on floor 32, prepared to replace oxygen tanks. Very few can complete the world’s largest on-air stair climb on one tank, but if a firefighter runs out of air during the attempt, they are disqualified.
After competing in the event last year, Shoopman decided to tackle this year’s climb on only one tank; the best finishing times come from participants who make it in one bottle, and Shoopman loves to compete.
“I worked really hard this year,” Shoopman said in a Thursday interview. “I had no reference before last year of what it really was. This year I had an advantage, I feel like, because I had some experience. I knew what to expect.”
His training was more intense this year; in the three months before the trip to Seattle, Shoopman spent much of his time in an air pack on the stair climbers at Club Dauntless. A noted runner, he said he was also putting in more road miles.
“If I wasn’t climbing stairs, I was running,” he said.
The cause — fighting cancer — and his fellow firefighters made it easier to stay motivated, Shoopman said.
“Jeremy has been an inspiration for all of us,” he said. “I feel honored and inspired to be a part of helping him and others survive and, you know, get more out of their lives.”
Shoopman said his teammates helped push him to climb harder. He credited his fellow volunteers with being able to finish with just one bottle.
“That motivation and inspiration comes from the camaraderie that I feel with that group of guys,” he said. “They’ve been an inspiration to me because they believe in me.”
Bassett never took time off from his training after the 2022 race. “I just continued to do the same [workouts] and not let myself fall back to where when it was time to train again.”
He improved on last year’s finishing time by 90 seconds, impressing himself by finishing only 40 seconds behind Shoopman.
“He’s kind of an animal,” Bassett said of Shoopman.
Bassett has organized the event for the Powell volunteers for the past two years.
About 2,000 firefighters from 50 states and three countries outside the U.S. participate in the charity event in Seattle.
Through the years the event has raised more than $24 million for the society to help find a cure for lymphoma and leukemia. With a goal of raising $3 million this year, the nonprofit organization had only raised 70% of that goal by the time the race was finished.
Donations are still being accepted through the end of May at www.LLSWA.org.