Most days, Station 21 is a standard-issue firehouse.
Firefighters quarters, always orderly, sit adjacent to the garage. Helmets, jackets, tanks line the wall. A loud speaker blares radio calls. A fire engine and ambulance sit poised, keys in the ignitions.
But on a stuffy day last week, Station 21 looked more ready for an episode of “Orange County Choppers” than an emergency call. At the end of the garage, lilted and lined up like gloss and chrome dominoes, sat a row of Harley-Davidson Road Kings.
The bikes belong to four West Pierce firefighters who will ride them 2,872 miles east to Ground Zero next month to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York.
To Rick Snodgrass – who has dedicated two decades of his life to protecting people in Lakewood and now University Place – the reason he’s riding is simple. As a firefighter and member of the International Association of Firefighters Motorcycle group, it just made sense.
“It was just something we had to do,” the 53-year-old engineer at Station 21 said. “There was something in us that told us we had to go.”
They won't be the only firefighters who are making the ride to New York on two wheels. A group of firefighter-cyclists will be making their way from Hollywood, CA to New York, and that group is seeking donations for its causes.
The West Pierce firefighters expect to leave Sept. 2, ceremoniously, from the Tacoma Fallen Firefighters Memorial. There, they will conduct a “Blessing of the Fleet” ceremony in which all four riders will dip their back tires into Puget Sound. After they reach New York, they will dip their front tires in the Atlantic.
Snodgrass expects the riders will need a week to cross the country. Along the way, they will become part of an estimated caravan of 5,000 motorcycle-riding firefighters from across the U.S. and Canada. They’ll sleep, eat and ride together, the firefighter way.
They won’t just stop in New York, either. The four plan to keep riding to the Pentagon in Washington D.C. and Shanksville, PA — the other, sometimes overlooked 911 sites.
For Snodgrass, he’ll be focused on a single number: 343. That’s the number of New York firefighters who died responding to the World Trade Center attacks a decade ago.
“A lot of firefighters know it by heart,” he said. “It has changed the way we think of our brothers across the country.”
Snodgrass visited the World Trade Center a year or so before the attacks. He remembers standing on the observation deck of one of the Twin Towers and gazing, in awe, at New York’s vastness.
He has visited Ground Zero three times since the attacks. Each time, he says, he cried. Even during the interview with Patch last week, he had to fight back tears.
“First time I went, it was pretty moving,” says Snodgrass.
For the three other West Pierce riders, the trip will have special meaning, both in a grand sense, as well as personally. All four of them work out of Station 21. Three of them work the “A Shift” together.
Engine 21 Capt. Greg Johnson has fought fires in Lakewood for three decades. Few calls, he says, have generated the kind of shock, then sadness at the fire station as the images they watched of 9/11.
“None of us who do this job – especially those of us working that day – there isn’t anyone who doesn’t vividly remember,” said the 55-year-old.
Compared to the captain, Aaron Johnson is a baby. The 29-year-old medic was in the firefighter academy on Sept. 11. The sacrifice of the 343 inspired him.
“That behavior, I wanted to be that and live my life that way,” he said.
For Travis Kuch, who’s worked almost nine years out of the Lakewood station, the cross-country ride will be significant for a number of reasons. Most importantly, he wants to pay tribute to the firefighters who lost their lives that day. Death is something that all firefighters know might be in the next building.
“But we don’t see it among our ranks,” Kuch said.
Sadness, joy and brotherhood
They’ll interact with firefighters across the U.S. and Canada throughout their journey. After New York, Washington D.C., and other parts of the East Coast, the West Pierce riders plan to swing through Southern and Midwest states before returning to the Northwest.
As Kuch puts it, he’s riding “to meet brothers across America.”
As far as Ground Zero, the West Pierce riders don’t know what they’ll experience mentally, spiritually or emotionally.
“Every emotion in the book,” Snodgrass said. “Sadness. Joy. All of it.”
Predicted Kuch: “I’m kind of a big baby, so I’m probably going to cry. It always hits you hard.”
Capt. Greg Johnson says he’ll be thinking about the families of the fallen 343. He’ll also be thinking of his own.
Then, as the West Pierce riders end their chat with Patch, a dispatch operator’s voice blares across the station. It’s a call out to a nearby trailer park.
“Sorry,” the captain says. “We gotta go.”