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'Fight for Air' participants are stepping up and up and up

Entrants in the American Lung Assn.'s sixth annual charity event become stair masters as they traverse the 1,391 steps in the 62-story Aon Center, downtown L.A.'s second-tallest skyscraper.

March 02, 2013|By Bob Pool, Los Angeles Times
  • Entrants in the American Lung Assn.'s "Fight for Air" fundraiser train for the April 6 event by climbing the stairs of the 62-story Aon skyscraper in downtown Los Angeles.
Entrants in the American Lung Assn.'s "Fight for Air"… (Rick Loomis, Los Angeles…)

Downtown skyscraper manager Peter Anastassiou knew what steps to take when asked to help with an American Lung Assn. charity event: all 1,391 in his building.

His 62-story Aon Center at 707 Wilshire Blvd. will host as many as 800 stair climbers in the group's sixth annual "Fight for Air" fundraising event April 6.

Access to most high-rises has been restricted for outsiders since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But Anastassiou opens his stairwells on Tuesdays and Thursdays to people who registered for the event and want to get in shape.

"We are probably the only building downtown that does this," Anastassiou said.

Climbers include Michael Carcieri, a 61-year-old financial officer from Silver Lake; Mark Trahanovsky, a 54-year-old Yorba Linda salesman; and Pasadena options trader Jeff Dinkin, 47. They all are making the most of the opportunity.

"You look up at a tall building with a sense of dread.  You know it's going to be painful. There's nothing pretty about a stairwell," Trahanovsky said.

Another participant, Zivadin Zivkovic, travels to the building twice a week from San Diego, where he works in information technology. "Sometimes it takes me three hours each way, so I stay here for the full two-hour practice session and get five, six, sometimes seven climbs in. If I was really fast, I could get in eight or nine climbs," said Zivkovic, 47.

Stan Schwarz, computer system administrator for Caltech's earthquake office, has measured the steps and mapped out the Aon Center's zigzagging stairwells for other climbers. He said he first undertook the climb in 2009 after seeing photographs of earlier participants on the tower's helipad.

"I figured you never get to stand on the roof of these buildings normally. But the first time I did it I thought I was going to die. I told myself up on the roof I'd never do it again — it was the hardest thing I'd ever done. But by the time we got back down to the ground and they posted the times I said, 'Hey, I'm doing this again,'" said Schwarz, 53, of Pasadena.

Climber Lisa Zeigel, a 54-year-old personal trainer from Altadena, agreed the climb is tough but that the view — and the sense of accomplishment — makes it all worthwhile. "When you reach the top, you're out of anything left in the legs or the lungs. But on the roof I feel this indescribable elation, a kind of high," she said.

Two other Los Angeles high-rises also host annual stair climbs, but neither are open for training. The 73-story U.S. Bank Tower is the scene of the Ketchum-Downtown YMCA climb each September, and the 53-story Figueroa at Wilshire building is used for the Step Up to the Challenge climb staged in November by the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

The Aon Center is the second-tallest building in town. "Since climbers go all the way to the helipad on the roof, we say it's 63 stories of climbing," Anastassiou said. "A lot of the tenants here use the stairs for exercise at lunch, too. They're very positive about having climbers in the building."

About 60 companies — law offices, insurance firms, bankers — occupy the Aon Center, which was the tallest skyscraper in Los Angeles when it was built in 1974.

Those practicing for the April climbing event take elevators to get back down. Stairwell doors are locked to prevent them from wandering through the building's hallways. Climbers who encounter difficulty while training can use a stairwell intercom to summon help.

Jill Arnstein, executive director of the Lung Assn.'s Los Angeles chapter, said money raised from participants' $25 entry fees and required minimum of $100 in pledges is spent for research into lung disease and public awareness of asthma and other pulmonary problems.

Vanessa Petersen, who is helping organize the climb, said faster climbers will be allowed to go first on April 6. So will firefighters from Los Angeles and neighboring cities, who will climb carrying about 60 pounds of gear.

The event is good training for them, too: In 1988, firefighters had to carry equipment up what was then called the First Interstate Bank Tower to battle a raging high-rise fire. That blaze killed a building maintenance worker and injured 49 others, including 14 firefighters.

The stair climbs have so far raised about $650,000 for the Lung Assn. Last year, Anastassiou was among 744 climbers who raised $161,000. This year's goal is to raise $178,000, he said.

Fast climbers can reach the top in around eight minutes; last year, Anastassiou climbed the steps in 18. He's improved: "The first year it took me 28 minutes," he said.

bob.pool@latimes.com

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