Sullivan: High schooler Clayton Pike climbs through adversity in 9/11 tribute to firefighters

Jerry Sullivan

Clayton Pike climbed 110 stories’ worth of stairs to honor 9/11 firefighters. The 75-minute climb is even more impressive after learning Pike was once told he may never walk again. (Images and video courtesy of Canisius High School)

Clayton Pike has been looking up to firemen for as long as can remember. His father, Tim, a long-time volunteer for the Lake View district, began taking Clayton to the fire hall when he was 2 years old, mesmerized by the trucks and dreaming of a day when he could be in the department. 

A few years ago, the volunteers at the fire hall took Clayton under their wing when Tim fell ill with a serious blood disorder. He became a junior member and as his dad recalls, the department “adopted him for awhile.” 

Thus, it was no surprise when Clayton decided to do a tribute to some of the bravest firefighters this country has ever known — the 343 firemen who perished after the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. 

Pike wasn’t alive on that horrific day. But he grew up with the knowledge of what those firefighters had done on 9/11, rushing into the burning buildings after the planes hit the towers, determined to get people out, regardless of risks to their own lives. More than one in 10 people who died that day were firefighters.

Last Saturday, on the 20th anniversary of the attacks, Clayton did a memorial stair climb at the Lake View fire hall. The Canisius High senior put on the heavy fire suit and got on the stair climber in the upstairs gym. He did 2,200 steps, signifying the 110 stories that confronted those firefighters in the World Trade Center on that fateful day 20 years earlier. 

It took him about an hour and 15 minutes. Pike said he considered stopping for water, but kept going. His mom, Kim, would check on him periodically to make sure he was OK.

“They didn’t get to stop,” he said, “so why should I? If I was going to do it, I’d go all-out. I had my own gear as decided to put it on to give myself more of a challenge. I know it’s not even close to what they went through … ”

That’s true enough. But that grueling, 2,200-step tribute seems even more remarkable when you consider that a few years ago, doctors told Clayton he might never walk again.

It happened on Dec. 10, 2017. That was the day of the famous Snow Bowl game between the Bills and Colts in Orchard Park, a win that helped the Bills to end their playoff drought. The game was played in a blinding snowstorm, with the field barely visible and the passing game virtually non-existent. 

Pike, a 13-year-old eighth grader at the time, watched at a friend’s house. The Bills won in overtime on a run by LeSean McCoy. The boys ran outside to celebrate. They were diving in the snow. Clayton did a bellyflop onto what he thought was a deep pile of snow. It wasn’t. He landed on a patch of hard ground in a sloped area. He didn’t get up. 

He remembers thinking his arms were at his side. They were on his chest. He couldn’t feel anything. He was paralyzed on the right side of his body. 

“I knew I was pretty hurt when I realized I couldn’t move,” Pike recalled early this week between classes at Canisius. “I thought, ‘This is serious.’ There were a million thoughts going through my head, like ‘How is this going to affect the rest of my life?’”

Pike had suffered a spinal cord fracture to his C5 vertebrae. He underwent a seven-hour surgery. Doctors told him he had lost 50 percent of movement and might never walk again. His days as a competitive swimmer and distance runner were surely over.

A few weeks later, he was transferred to The Children’s Institute in Pittsburgh for early rehabilitation. Then, he spent two months in a rehab center in Atlanta. 

It was a rough Christmas season in ’17, the end of a brutal year for the Pikes. Tim and Kim Pike have a daughter, Olivia, who is two years younger than Clayton. Tim was in and out of hospitals nine times that year with a chronic blood disorder. After a long wait, he finally had a kidney transplant this past June. 

“I was actually just home from a stint at Roswell and home probably three weeks when Clayton had his accident,” Tim Pike recalled. “And crazy enough, I was fine until he came back home from Atlanta. Then I had to go back in again.”

Tim admitted it was an emotionally trying time for him. “To be honest with you, I had to talk to people,” he said, “because I was worried about the outcome.”

He meant his son and himself. But he was inspired by Clayton’s optimism, the way he refused to indulge in self-pity and never lost hope. 

“He would call me with positive stuff that he had happen to him that day,” Tim said. “When we went down to visit him (in Atlanta), he said, ‘Dad, I want to show you something.’ And he walked over to me. That was very moving.”

Clayton said his family always tries to make the best of a bad situation. Look around. Things could be worse. He never let his accident deflate him. 

“No, not really,” he said. “Throughout my rehab process I met a lot of people who are a lot worse off than I am. I’m lucky to be in the condition I am today. I have close friends who are in wheelchairs for the rest of their lives. I’ve met people with feeding tubes. I’m thankful to come out on the better end.”

Pike was walking with a cane months after the accident. By the time he entered ninth grade, he only needed the cane for long walks. With competitive swimming and running no longer possible, Pike joined the rowing team at Canisius. But before his junior year, he turned to sailing, a sport that he took to with a passion. He’s now captain of the Canisius team. 

“I’m in a pretty good spot,” he said. “I still do my occupational and physical therapy, try to stretch. I don’t want to say I’m back to normal, but I’m in a spot I’m comfortable in. 

“My right knee hyperextends, so I kind of walk with a limp. I have some foot muscle issues around my ankle and foot. It’s mostly my right side that’s affected.”

He chose Canisius over other private schools, partly because of their support during his recovery. By an odd coincidence, a Canisius student named Andrew Mangan had recovered from a nearly identical accident in the snow a year earlier. 

“They’ve always been there for me,” Pike said of Canisius. “It’s definitely a second family, a whole sense of community here.”

He feels the same way about the Lake View Fire Department, which has been part of the family since Tim joined in 1988 at age 18. Early this year, the fire hall hosted a fundraiser for Tim to help with medical bills. A woman named Lisa Motz went to the fundraiser and told her daughter, Melanie, about it.

“She mentioned it because her daughter had planned on donating a kidney to a friend of hers that had passed away,” Tim said. “She said, ‘How about Tim?’ Maybe you’re a match.’”

Melanie went to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center for a test. She was a match. 

“So we both went down for pre-surgical evaluation,” Tim said. “We found out that we lived three miles down the road from each other and we know 100 of the same people, but we’d never met.”

He got Melanie’s kidney in June. “So far, so good,” he said.

You always hope for the best, right? You put one foot in front of the other and see where it takes you. If someone needs help, you rush in. Next month, Clayton will take the New York State test to be an Emergency Medical Technician. You must be 18 to be an EMT in the state.

Something tells you he’ll do well. After all, the kid has been preparing almost his entire life. 

Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.

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