For the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, the “Ride for America” turned out to be a huge success. Starting on August 1 at the Santa Monica Pier, twelve firefighters and their support personnel made their way across the United States on their bicycles, and ended their journey at Ground Zero. The LAFD was represented by retired Captains Dave Castenada and Marv Williams. Other firefighters were from LA County, Ventura County, San Francisco, San Diego, and Washington State.
The riders covered 3,300 miles in thirty-four riding days and ventured through sixteen states including Washington, D.C. They averaged approximately ninety-five miles per day and had six rest days thrown in for good measure. Planning for the trip took over a year, but it was the countless hours of training that took up most of their time prior to launch day.
The goal of the ride was to raise money for four organizations and to “Never Forget” what happened on that day 20 years ago. The riders and their supporters raised an amazing $129,000. The proceeds were distributed between the Fire Family Foundation, the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation, Friends of Firefighters, and the Gary Sinise Foundation. The riders would like to thank all their supporters as well as their corporate sponsors: Straussner and Sherman, Firefighters First Federal Credit Union, and United Firefighters of Los Angeles City, IAFF Local 112.
On August 1, there was a great send off in Santa Monica with many news crews, family, and friends on hand to wish the riders a safe journey. After the excitement of the first day, reality set in. The California and Arizona Desert presented a challenge to all of the riders with temperatures reaching 118 degrees (130 degrees reflecting off the asphalt). The riders really counted on their support crew to keep them hydrated and fed. To beat the heat the riders would start the morning ride at 4:00 am. This was helpful, but by the time they reached their destination they were cooked.
Upon reaching New Mexico it started to cool down. Then the thunderstorms hit with lightning and amazingly loud thunder. One day they even rode through a patch of fresh snow. The plains states brought back higher temperatures, more humidity, and even more rain.
On their arrival to the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial, they were greeted by members of the OKC Fire Department and the museum staff. A memorable tour was given to all the riders as they relived that fateful day.
Their next significant stop was the Flight 93 Memorial in Shanksville, PA. The riders received a tour by a park ranger and a quote by retired LAFD Battalion Chief Steve Ruda caught everyone’s attention (see picture). Listening to recordings of those who knew they were not going to see their loved ones again was very emotional for the riders. As they left the memorial it once again began to rain.
There were many spectacular sights to see in Washington, D.C. The first was the United States Air Force Memorial which was closely followed by the Pentagon. The memorial was closed, but as they were about to leave a vehicle from the Pentagon Protection Force pulled up and inquired as to what they were doing. After explaining to Sgt. Will Smith about the “Ride for America” he gave the riders an unbelievable private tour. The ride continued as the riders rode their bikes up and down the Washington, D.C. mall taking in as many sights as they could.
A variety of emotions were felt on the final riding day. As the riders left Princeton, NJ the Plainsboro Fire Department had set up a large American Flag that the riders rode underneath. Each rider was having a multitude of feelings as the final day began, again in the rain. After a short day the riders took a ride on the Staten Island Ferry. After passing the Statue of Liberty and landing on shore they had finally reached their destination, Ground Zero. Tears welled on the riders faces as they contemplated what they had accomplished, and for the first time in many days saw their family and friends.
During the next couple of days the riders enjoyed seeing New York. They had two appearances on Good Morning America. On one, Marv Williams had an emotional story to tell. His daughter Heather had posted on social media about the ride. She was contacted by Mary Costello who lost her husband on 9/11. Her husband, Chuck, worked for an elevator company and when he saw the planes hit the towers on 9/11 he ran over a mile to offer assistance to the firefighters. He was so helpful the firefighters gave him the nickname “Elevator Man.” Unfortunately, Chuck never made it out of the towers. Chuck was an avid bicyclist and had always dreamed of riding his bicycle across the country. His wife sent a plasticized picture of Chuck that Marv carried in his back pocket the entire ride, thus fulfilling Chuck’s dream of riding across the country. There was an emotional meeting with the Costello family at one of the FDNY functions. It was a fantastic conclusion to a long, arduous, emotional, and memorable journey that they will never forget.