Dozens of motorcyclists, most of them police officers, rumbled into the Riverside Common shopping center in Greenwich Thursday morning to participate in the 12th annual America's 9/11 Foundation Ride, held each year in honor of the more than 2,900 victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
The shopping center is one of numerous "staging areas" across the country where event participants met in preparation of their respective "pre-rides" to the Flight 93 site in Somerset, Pennsylvania. Along the way they will be joined by riders from other states until hundreds from across the country converge at the site of the Flight 93 Memorial on Friday. From there, the three-day Ride officially rolls to the Pentagon in Virginia, and then on to the World Trade Center in New York City.
The riders at the shopping center — their Harleys gleaming in the early Thursday morning sun — came from as far away as South Portland, Maine, to start the first leg of the nearly 900 mile trip. However most were from Connecticut towns, including Danbury, Westport, Fairfield and Trumbull.
"This year only 25 to 30 riders will leave Greenwich," explained event co-organizer Ted Sjurseth as he distributed registration forms to riders. ""
Sjurseth attributed the tough economy and "complacency" on the reduced turnout. He said overall participation is only about a third of what it was when the Ride started in 2001 — down from its peak of about 1,900 riders in 2006 to about 600 this year.
"There really isn't anything we can do about the economic factor," he said, pointing out that most riders end up paying more than $1,000 out of their own pockets for hotel, food, gas, tolls and other expenses.
As far as complacency goes, he pointed out that we're coming off the ten year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, "and the eleventh anniversary just isn't as big as the tenth or the fifteenth and so on."
The goal of the event is not only to keep the memory of the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks alive, but also to help raise money for the America 9-11 Foundation, a non-profit which provides scholarships to the children of emergency services workers who were killed in 9/11, including fire, police and EMS. Sjurseth said so far this year only about 15 riders are being sponsored.
Not only is the event somewhat expensive for the volunteer riders to participate in, it is a logistical nightmare to plan:
"Think about it: the Ride goes through seven different states, 100 different counties," Sjurseth said. "Last year there was a 45 minute to one hour delay at some intersections, as the Ride came through. We have to shut down all the major highways and routes in order for this thing to happen — so you're talking major issues. There is a lot of planning and paperwork."
Not to mention about $60,000 in toll fees that must be prepaid in advance.
"It's not like you can have all those riders stop at each toll booth — the delays would be just ridiculous," Sjurseth said, adding that he arranges with each state to give the Ride quick passage through toll sites and other traffic bottlenecks.
Coming along for the Ride is a fleet of support vehicles, including about 35 fueling vehicles, a repair truck, a fire truck and two ambulances. Should a rider's motorcycle run out of gas, outside of a planned stop, its tank will be filled immediately — and should one break down along the route, chances are it can be repaired right there and then, Sjurseth said.
The Ride has not always been smooth though: "One year we had one person die," Sjurseth said. "He had a brain aneurism. That happened in New Jersey. He just drifted off the side of the road and hit a bridge abutment."
He was referring to Herbert Winterberg, Jr. who died August 18, 2007 while headed to Manhattan with the ride.
"Now we have, well, we don't call it a medical review, but it really is — just in case there's any concerns," Sjurseth said. "Basically what it means is you can't Ride if you've just been in the hospital or have some other medical condition..."
Sjurseth said the longest nonstop leg of the trip is 102 miles, from Rommel's Harley Davidson in New Castle, Del., to Linden, NJ. He said the Ride is open to anyone who wants to participate — "all we ask that you be a licensed motorcycle rider," he said — but it is definitely not for inexperienced riders, becaused of the distances involved as well the challenges of riding in tight formation.
"In 2001 when we started this, people laughed at me and said you'll never shut down I-95 — but we do it every year," Sjurseth said, adding that each year the route gets slightly adjusted due to road construction and other factors. "This year we're hoping for no rain — but this should be a nice, easy and manageable group. Instead of sending 200 people to help to bring fuel, this year we've only got 35."
Participating once again in this year's Ride, as a police escort, is Greenwich Police Sgt. John Slusarz, along with two other officers from the department.
"The Ride is just the tip of the iceberg," Slusarz said. "The big part of the Foundation is the scholarships that are given out to the children of the emergency services workers — fire, police and EMS."
What is also often overlooked, Slusarz said, is that the members of America's 9-11 Foundation stand ready to mobilize and respond to any emergency.
"We've been to Joplin… we've been to Katrina… and nobody has funded us," Sjurseth said. "We take it out of our own coffers and roll. We load up trucks (with trailers) with bobcats and backhoes and we just go…"
So how did Sgt. Slusarz prepare for this year's Ride?
"Get the bike serviced… and get a good night's sleep… ," he said. "You know, the motor units in the state, we're all really well connected… and this is something we look forward to every year…"