Recently a group of 30 motorcycle enthusiasts from throughout the area embarked on America's 9/11 Ride, a project organized by America's 911 Foundation, Inc., which visited each of the crash sites in Pennsylvania, Virginia and New York City as part of a 1,000-mile journey.
Julie and Jeff Smith of St. Marys acted as the local location hosts, having traveled with the memorial ride in 2008. Jeff has been a member of the Crystal Fire Department since 1980, having served as a firefighter, driver, EMT and chairman of the board.
As part of the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the Smiths thought it fitting to gather a group for the event. Riders departed from the Crystal Fire Department parking lot on Erie Avenue on the morning of Aug. 18 and met up with over 2,996 fellow riders from 37 states, as well as participants from Canada and Australia, later that day in Somerset.
"It's the most amazing thing I ever did," said Jeff Smith. "Only about one-third of the people on the ride were EMS, fire or police personnel."
The foundation's annual memorial ride takes place each August and is focused on remembering the heroes, volunteers and victims lost on Sept. 11, 2011 and since then. It is held in August in order to respect each site and the survivors, allowing them to mourn during September. Participants on the ride are responsible for registration costs, as well as booking their hotel rooms for the trip.
America's 911 Foundation, Inc., was established in 2001 and is dedicated to supporting all active first responders nationwide. The foundation funds a college scholarship program for children of active first responders, including EMS, fire and police. They also assist emergency organizations with funds, materials, equipment and/or volunteers when needed.
On the four-day journey, riders traveled through Shanksville, past the crash site of Flight 93 on Friday, Aug. 19, to Arlington, Va., where Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon. On Saturday, Aug. 20, riders arrived in lower Manhattan in New York City and were escorted to Ground Zero, site of the fallen World Trade Center's Twin Towers, on the morning of Sunday, Aug. 21.
"This year, it was a lot more emotional and there were a lot more people," Julie said.
The memorial service takes place at each site. In the past, 9/11 family members were guests, with some speaking to the riders, as part of the one-hour service.
As part of the 2008 New York memorial service, participants listened intently to the 9/11 experiences of Greg Pinnavaia, a safety director in Trade Center Tower 2. This year, Julie said there were many more officials present at the Ground Zero service.
"There is always a bagpiper present at the service," Jeff noted. "Military representatives present the flag as well."
The ride is fully police escorted and travels the same route each year. This year, the 1,876 motorcycles stretched for 15 miles. Each morning of the ride, the St. Marys group gathers together at 5:45 a.m. in an effort to ride together.
"We never stop at a light or toll booth," Julie explained. "This is the only ride like this."