Cyclists ride for crew members who died on 9/11

May 01, 2006|by JENNIFER FITCH

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Five cyclists awake with the sun each day and gather by a recreational vehicle to talk about their fellow airline crew members who died on Sept. 11, 2001.

"Some of the riders knew one of the crew members and will tell a story about them," Thomas Heidenberger said.

Then, the cyclists will push off on the next leg of their cross-country journey, traveling anywhere from 70 to 180 miles while relying on the guidance of the person to whom that day is dedicated.

Heidenberger, who passed through Chambersburg on Sunday with the other riders, reflected on one day's worth of riding this week that took them to Shanksville, Pa., where United Flight 93 crashed. That ride was dedicated to Capt. Jason Dahl, who was in the cockpit of United Flight 93.

"We'll say, 'Jason, get us to where we need to go. When we have the hard times or difficult times, we'll call on Jason to help us out," Heidenberger said. "More often times than not, I'll call on my wife, albeit silently."


Heidenberger lost his wife, Michele, when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon. Heidenberger and fellow pilot Tony Asterita organized the Airline Ride Across America to raise money for memorials at the crash sites in Shanksville, New York City and Washington, D.C.

"That's what it's all about: the three memorials," said Heidenberger, a US Airways pilot and resident of Chevy Chase, Md.

The cyclists' 33-day journey began in Los Angeles on April 2 and will end May 9 at the Pentagon.

"It's the cause that keeps you going. We've got a schedule that we've got to make. Each day that we ride is for one of the 33 crew members. We have to be where we say we're going to be. We have to press on," said Rob Zettel, a pilot for United Airlines who lives in Annapolis.

"You have the leaders in the sky. Why not through them spearhead a fundraising campaign or a public-awareness campaign? You don't have to be anyone special to take this on," Heidenberger said.

The group has raised $64,000 toward its $300,000 goal, according to its Web site.

"Here we are five years after 9/11, and where are we in respect to the memorials?" Heidenberger asked.

He said the cyclists, who have been joined by others in various legs of the journey, want to provide a place for the families of victims to visit.

"You have people who were unable to give their family members a proper burial," he said.

The pregnant mothers who lost husbands on Sept. 11 now have children who have questions about their dads. The elderly need a place to remember their relatives within their lifetime, Heidenberger said.

"There were days when we did 160, 170 and 180 miles a day," Heidenberger said. "It needed to be done because we are riding for someone else."

Those 160- to 180-mile days lasted 12 to 14 hours. At the end, the cyclists stopped and said "thank you" to that day's crew member, he said.

"We are all driven by the same purpose - to bring an awareness to the first of the first responders," Heidenberger said.

Zettel said the ride into Chambersburg was probably the hardest cycling because they crossed four major ridgelines with steep elevations.

However, he carried with him the experience of greeting families and visitors at the Shanksville site.

"The outpouring of support and emotion you see is very humbling," Zettel said.

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