By Sue Botos
Most people old enough to remember can recall exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard that the World Trade Center towers had fallen to terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001. The memory is especially poignant to first responders such as New York City firefighters Liam Flaherty and Will Downey, who saw friends and colleagues perish while saving others.
In honor of the 411 first responders and 2,973 victims who lost their lives in New York, Shanksville, Pa., and at the Pentagon, Flaherty and Downey joined more than 20 other police officers, firefighters and military personnel from the United States and Australia, in the 2012 “Tour of Duty,” which cycled through Rocky River on Labor Day.
“The best part is the people. The hospitality has been phenomenal,”said Flaherty, as he joined his fellow bicyclists for a meal provided by Rocky River firefighters and their families at the station. They were welcomed by police escort and Mayor Pam Bobst, after completing a 111-mile leg of the journey, beginning in Toledo that morning.
The stop in the Cleveland area was one of 20 stages for the tour, which began Aug. 12 aboard the USS Midway in San Diego, and is set to finish at the USS Intrepid in New York City on Sept. 10, covering over 2,600 miles in 29 days. Included were memorial tributes at the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Shanksville, the Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Emmitsburg, Md., the National Law Enforcement Memorial in Washington, D.C., the Pentagon Memorial in Arlington, Va., and the World Trade Center site in New York.
Part of those tributes was often haunting bagpipe music, provided by Flaherty, a member of New York City’s firefighter pipe and drum band. “It gives me goose bumps to hear him,” commented Jo Kenney, a firefighter from Adelaide, Australia, and one of several women taking part in the ride. As she recalled the music, the goose bumps actually appeared on her arms.
“We’ve become like family,” said Kenney of her fellow riders. Countryman and member of the Australian army, Dan Ferguson, agreed that camaraderie between the riders reflected the special bond between Aussies and Americans.
“The connection is based on our countries’ joint operations starting during World War I and continuing today,” he stated.
Flaherty said of the Australian riders, “They’re fantastic. They’re easygoing and not high maintenance.”
The group’s website adds, “The United States and Australia share many common bonds in peace and war; historically, politically and culturally. Our ancestors migrated to establish new frontiers, and today we stand united as allies as we have done in every major conflict.”
The group was a mix of experienced long-distance cyclists,and those newer to the sport. “This is the first time I’ve done this, but it has been a good experience,” noted Las Vegas police Sgt. Darren Heiner. He said that the group, on average, covers about 70 to 100 miles each day.
The group agreed that, for the most part, the weather has been cooperative, and that they were progressing on schedule, set to arrive in New York in eight days. Becoming part of a parade in Toledo, and a police escort around a busy section of Route 2, were some of the Ohio highlights.
Flaherty, who sported some scrapes on his knee from “somewhere in Kentucky,” said that he had participated in the first Tour of Duty in 2010, which was a cross-country run, starting in Los Angeles and ending in New York on Sept. 11.
Funds raised during this year’s event will go to the Wounded Warrior Project, which supports injured service members, and the 9/11 Tribute Center.
Before the riders left the Rocky River station to be escorted into downtown Cleveland for an overnight stay, Flaherty brought his pipes out from one of the group’s large support trucks, and treated his hosts and fellow cyclists to an impromptu concert. Bobst was visibly touched by the show of friendship between the riders and countries. “This is so moving,” she said.