NY firefighters send thanks via cross-country bike tour

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

STAR STAFF

   Following the Sept. 11 World Trade Center disaster, Americans showed their support for New York firefighters with a heartfelt outpouring of donations. Now, six New York firefighters are taking a reciprocal bike ride across the United States to express their thanks.
   The firefighters and three support personnel spent Monday night in Bristol, Va., and received an escort to Piney Flats Tuesday morning by Bluff City firefighters. There, the caravan was met by members of Johnson City Fire Department.
   Mike Nash, Johnson City assistant fire chief, escorted New York firefighters to Firehouse Barbecue in Johnson City for a late lunch.
   "They are touring America as a thank-you for what America has done for New York firefighters -- all of the support they have shown.
   "I'm sure that they're thanking them on behalf of their fellow firefighters that fell during that time. Their mood was, in my opinion, was just real appreciative of America and all Americans and wanting to show respect for their comrades, and they're really supporting the New York Fire Department," Nash said.
   The New York firemen began their cross-country tour Nov. 11 in New York.
   "They got up this morning and we met them in Piney Flats and we escorted them to the Firehouse Barbecue (which) donated their dinner. The (Johnson City) fire chief was there to greet them and we presented them with fire department memorabilia from Johnson City," Nash said.
   "I had my vehicle, which is a Jeep, and I was in front leading and we had one of our ladder trucks that followed behind with their red lights on to keep the lane blocked so they could ride.
   "After they ate lunch we escorted them to the Greene County line and Greeneville Fire Department picked up the escort from there. They were going to stay in Greeneville tonight," Nash said Tuesday evening, "and start for Knoxville tomorrow."
   The firefighters will spend Thanksgiving with Knoxville Fire Department, which will provide them with Thanksgiving dinner and take them to the University of Tennessee to introduce them to the Volunteers. The firefighters are due to arrive at their destination in California by Dec. 15.
   "They're kind of on a schedule and they don't have a lot of time to just sit around and talk," Nash said, "but we spoke to them briefly during lunch and they shared some things that had happened. A lot of it was personal things.
   "I know one of them that I spoke with, his fire station where he worked ... they lost 10 firefighters.
   "Like they said, a firefighter -- whether you're in New York or here in Johnson City, or whether you're in another country -- it's kind of a camaraderie amongst each other. They said they just felt like they were at home whenever they came into any city and the fire department greeted them and welcomed them. They said we were all family to them."
   Nash, like many others, still feels overwhelmed by the Sept. 11 tragedy.
   "When it happened, for us to comprehend over 300 firefighters getting killed at one time, you just can't comprehend that. We sit around down here and there's something you want to do, but there's not anything you can do. But then when you get to talk to them like we did today and you get to help them out a little bit, that kind of makes you feel better," he said.
   Though followed by a camper and van, the firefighters do not catch a ride when they tire out.
   "They stop periodically and eat their meals and they'll stop maybe for a 15 minute break every now and then, but they rode the whole way. We kind of thought that since they had a camper that maybe one, when he got tired, he would stop and ride in the camper for awhile, but they said no, they were riding every step of the way.
   "One of them looked like a running back for the Oakland Raiders or something, he was built that well. Some of were probably in their 40's, but they were in good shape. They'd have to be to ride all across the country," Nash said.
   Though the firefighters did not express any needs, Johnson City firefighters and police are considering taking up donations and sending Christmas gifts to surviving families of some of their comrades, according to Nash.
   "They didn't do a lot of talking as far as what they needed. They just wanted to ride and wave at the crowd. A lot of people were blowing at them and waving at them. It was something to see," he said.
   Jonesborough firefighters joined the entourage as they approached the city limits, falling in behind Johnson City. The escort continued to Greeneville, where it was met by a car from Greeneville Fire Department and a truck from one of the local volunteer fire departments.
   "Their next destination after they leave Knoxville is going to Chattanooga and then when they get to Chattanooga they're going directly west, traveling the back roads," Nash said.
   "They loved the area. They came down through Virginia and they said they didn't think it could get any prettier but they said the farther they went, the prettier it got. Of course, some of the hills kind of got to them," he said.
   With so many of their comrades still unaccounted for, some New York firefighters are still looking for closure following the Sept. 11 tragedy, including the biker in the lead as the group left Jonesborough.
   "He was telling me that they were going to have a wake for his uncle somewhere close to the 15th of December and he would probably have to stop long enough to catch a plane and go back and attend the wake and then fly back and get back on the bike again," Nash said.