Thomas Heidenberger wanted to have a tribute that would take precisely 33 days, one day to honor each of the 33 flight crew members who perished in the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001.
Heidenberger, 59, a 25-year captain for US Airways, says he was flying out of Los Angeles on a clear day last October, when he came up with the idea for the unique tribute, a cross-country bicycle ride.
The weather that day was much like it was on September 11th, 2001, he says, when 33 flight crew members on four hijacked flights were among the thousands of victims killed in the terrorist attacks.
Heidenberger’s wife of 30 years, Michele, was a flight attendant on American Airlines Flight 77 that crashed into the Pentagon.
Heidenberger thought about the sacrifice of the 33 fallen flight crew members who were the “first responders” on the hijacked flights, and he decided to organize a bicycle ride across the country that would honor their memory.
“I thought, what a way to try to tell the world about not just that day, but the 33 crew members,” said Heidenberger, who lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and has two children, Alison, 25, and Thomas II, 19. “Most of the 33 crew members were the first to confront the hijackers and were the first responders, and not many people see them in that sense.”
Heidenberger and four other airline employees began the “Airline Ride Across America” Sunday, April 2nd, at Dockweiler Beach in Playa del Rey, near Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), the original destination of three of the hijacked flights.
The airline employees will be joined by other riders on the journey, which will take them across 15 states and cover more than 3,500 miles by the time the ride ends Tuesday, May 9th, at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.
They will ride each day in memory of a fallen flight crew member and the September 11th victims, but are also hoping to raise $100,000 for each of the planned September 11th memorials at the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Each week of the ride will be dedicated to one of the hijacked flights.
“What better way to pay tribute and to bring awareness of the 33 crew members than to get the memorials funded and built so that the families have a place to go,” Heidenberger said.
The crew members who were killed need to be recognized because “not enough attention” has been brought to them for their sacrifice, Heidenberger said.
The airline riders dedicated the first day of the ride to captain Charles “Chic” Burlingame III of Flight 77, and the last day of the trip, May 9th, will be in memory of Michele Heidenberger.
Sheri Burlingame, Chic’s wife and an American Airlines flight attendant, is driving the support vehicle for Airline Ride.
The “core group” of riders consists of five airline employees, including Heidenberger, Robert McGee, Paul Guttenberg, Mark Clark and Rob Zettel, but the ride is open to anyone interested. Other bicyclists plan to take part in the Airline Ride on various legs of the trip.
Heidenberger set up a Web site for the event at www.airline ride.org. He said the ride has received attention from hundreds of interested riders from across the country, including some family members of September 11th victims.
Zettel, 51, a United Airlines pilot, said he wanted to be involved in Airline Ride not only because he’s an avid cyclist but because of its benefit in raising awareness about the crew members who were killed.
“It’s a fantastic cause,” said Zettel, who lives in Annapolis, Maryland, with his wife, Ann Marie. “In almost all cases, they were among the first to give their lives and they may be the first to be forgotten.
“They deserve better than that.”
Heidenberger and his wife were in the midst of planning a trip to Italy for their 30th wedding anniversary when the September 11th attacks occurred.
“She was the ideal companion, wife and mother, who was my best friend,” Heidenberger said of Michele.
He said he spoke to Michele at 6:38 a.m. that day, but he doesn’t know if at the end of the conversation, he told her he loved her.
It may be those types of memories that will make the cross-country ride extra difficult for Heidenberger, who expects the journey to have its share of physical challenges, as well as emotional.
“I think the biggest challenge will be trying to keep it all together,” he said. “There may be some pain and suffering, but we will call on the person we’re riding for that day to get us through.”
The ride is sure to test the bicyclists in many ways, as some days it will cover as many as 160 miles, but Heidenberger, a former triathlete, said he has trained heavily and is ready to achieve his goal.
“I have the focus, enthusiasm and drive to make it happen,” he said.
The ride is taking the bicyclists on a southern route through Phoenix and Dallas, and then head northeast.
The trip includes visits to each of the three September 11th crash sites, including Shanksville, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, where the riders will pay tribute to the victims by laying wreaths and observing a moment of silence.
When Heidenberger finishes the cross-country ride May 9th, with the other Airline Ride bicyclists, he said he will not only be ending a race but a “chapter of my life,” as he plans to retire from his career in the airline industry.
Heidenberger said that he will be “relieved” when the ride is over, and while he may or may not achieve his fundraising goal, he will know that he did his part to keep the memory of the 33 flight crew members alive.
“I won’t be the one saying ‘I wish I could’ve done this,” he said. “I’ll know that at least I tried my best to bring awareness to the first responders (flight crew) and the funding of the three memorials.”