Aussie Run Honors 9/11 Bravest

EMMITSBURG, Md. -- On Sept. 11, 2001, firefighters in Australia -- as many throughout the world -- watched in disbelief as terrorists crashed planes into the twin towers in New York City.

They cried upon learning that 343 of their brothers in New York perished doing their jobs.

Now, some of those Aussie firefighters are running across the United States to honor not only the responders but everyone who died that day at the hands of terrorists.

Under a brilliant sky Monday -- much like the one on Sept. 11 nine years ago -- those participating in the Tour of Duty run took a break to visit the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial at the National Fire Academy.

After a breakfast whipped up by the staff of the National Fallen Firefighters' Foundation and welcomes from local officials, the runners laid a wreath at the memorial and paused.

Paul Ritchie, a firefighter in Melbourne, believes he was meant to organize the event to remember every single person, especially his brothers in New York.

"Our run is a statement for hope for the future," he said. "It reflects humanity, mateship, camaraderie and self sacrifice."

Ritchie was in a pub on Sept. 11 when the news of the attacks flashed on all the television screens. Crews returned to their firehouses, sat and watched.

"Everyone was silent," he said as his voice trailed off when he described seeing the second plane hit the tower. "We caught that remarkable moment in life."

Crews were glued to the station's television, and watched as the number of firefighters lost grew. "We went to calls, but there wasn't any conversation -- just silence."

More than two years ago, Ritchie started planning the remembrance run that started at 8:46 a.m. Aug. 12 in Santa Monica, Calif.

Since the event involves much more than strength and endurance, Australian firefighters vied for selection after being recommended by their departments.

Prospective runners had to submit essays explaining what 9/11 meant to them.

Ritchie said it was difficult for the team of judges to pick just 16 to represent the country and their fire service.

"When you hurt one firefighter, you hurt all of us. It doesn't matter that we are a world away. We do the same job. We have the same passion," said Rob Frey, one of two Queensland Fire and Rescue Service members selected.

Frey said the U.S. and Australia have long shared a bond, and the terrorist events strengthened that. "We all wanted to respond that day."

Another Queensland firefighter, Leon Colbert said he was honored to win a spot on the team. "It is wonderful to have the opportunity to pay homage to those killed."

He's been amazed by the response from people who've stopped to applaud, wave, donate or buy them a meal or a beer.

Along the way, they've stopped in huge fire departments and tiny firehouses with just one or two engines. "It was just as special no matter," Colbert said.

The memories of the people will be with them forever. "We had the opportunity to meet the brother of the pilot of the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. We learned about how he fought desperately for the United States," Frey recalled.

The 36 runners were divided into three groups that run for six hours. At 8:46 a.m. daily, they stop and the names of the fallen they are running for are read.

They log the person's name, who ran for them and the approximate location in case family or friends want to know or revisit the area.

The run also includes U.S. responders. Bradley Iverson, a firefighter from North Las Vegas Fire Department, said while the pace has been grueling, the camaraderie has kept him going.

"This is a memorial run. We're honoring people we lost. We've had folks waving flags and yelling, 'Thanks for what you are doing.' It's stirred up a lot of emotions."

Rob Wills and Dan Steffens aren't firefighters, but they're just as involved in the event as anyone. They're police officers.

Wills is a lieutenant in the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, while Steffans is with the Port Authority of New York/New Jersey.

The Port Authority lost 37 officers in the World Trade Center attack.

Steffans, who coaches a rugby team with a FDNY firefighter, said the terrain has been difficult at times, especially in the elevations. "I'm with some phenomenal athletes. I'm really happy to be involved in this."

He also said the encouragement of his teammates and strangers along the route have kept the spirit alive.

Wills said firefighters and police officers really are similar. "We do different jobs. But, we're dedicated to serving our communities. People say we're crazy for racing toward gunfire. And, they say firefighters are crazy for racing into burning buildings."

The two said it was special to run down the Vegas strip while "God Bless the USA" was played.

Footage from their run was featured on the ceiling above Vegas' famous Freemont Street, and accompanying music "Eye of the Tiger" gave the team an extra boost.

A fifth generation Melbourne firefighter, Rachel Cowling is the only woman participating.

"My dad (a firefighter) came home after his night shift, and told us about what happened in New York City. My dad never cries."

Cowling, one of 59 women in the 1,700 member department, said she's honored to represent her country in the memory run.

She spoke of her grief for the families of those who perished in the terrorist attacks. When the hills get tough, she thinks of their sacrifices and losses.

"I'm looking forward to running across the bridge into New York City on Sept. 11. My father, mother and grandma will be waiting. My dad will probably cry again."

Chicago Capt. Pat Maloney has made a lifetime of friendships these past few weeks. He spoke proudly of the outpouring of support in his hometown when the team arrived.

But, it wasn't just the local turnout that moved him. "In firehouses across the United States, we've been welcomed. We've done laundry, slept in their beds and eaten at their tables. I'm more proud than ever to be a firefighter."

Upon hearing about why the international team was running across the country, many restaurant owners refused to take their money, saying providing a hot meal was the least they could do.

For James Dowdell, the run is especially important. The FDNY firefighter lost his father, Kevin, on Sept. 11.

Kevin Dowdell was assigned to Rescue 4.

"This has been an unbelievable experience," he said. "We're all firefighters. We're all cut from the same cloth."