Local firefighter leads band of bikers to New York for 9/11 memorial ride
By Mark Konkol Staff Reporter September 5, 2011 4:32PM
Updated: November 26, 2011 12:26AM
Editor’s note: Mark Konkol will be riding his 2007 Harley Ultra Classic alongside Firefighter Tom Maloney on the journey to Ground Zero. Look for updates on Twitter @KonkolsKorner and on his blog at Suntimes.com/konkol.
Ten years ago, Chicago Fire Lt. Tom Maloney had never been to New York City.
And the Northwest Sider had no desire to visit.
Back then it was: Forget New York . . . the Yankees, too.
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, changed all that.
After the World Trade Center towers crumbled, Maloney and firefighter pal Ed Newcomer packed a van and rushed to Ground Zero to help in what they thought would be a search and rescue mission — only when they got there, there was no one to rescue.
For 12 days, Maloney labored in the rubble, covered in concrete ash and God-only-knows what else. When it finally was time to come home, Maloney had already left a piece of himself in that pile.
“It was an emotional experience being there. The things I did. The things I experienced. The shock I felt with the rest of the country. I saw things firsthand. I met guys, firemen, big, tall, burly guys who just cried their eyes out. It’s hard for me to explain what it was like to work there with them New York guys,” Maloney says. “It’s like guys who fight in battle together. I can still see their faces.”
Every year since, Maloney has organized a memorial motorcycle ride from Sox Park to Manhattan on the anniversary of the attacks. Hundreds of riders — nearly 1,000 — have joined him over the years.
“It’s a proud feeling going back there. I never thought I’d be doing it every year,” he said. “Not for 10 years. No way.”
But on Tuesday, Maloney and about 100 bikers were set to meet at 35th and Shields and fire up their engines at precisely 9:11 a.m. one more time.
“This ride drives me. I started it because I wanted people to see everything I saw. To feel everything I felt. To never forget, honestly,” he said. “But I think that it has to end. Life goes on. After 10 years, people don’t remember. The idea of having people never forget, it’s out of my hands.”
‘They are all over’
For Maloney, and his biker pals, Lt. Joel Burns and firefighter Stan Salata, there’s no forgetting “The Pile.”
Separately, they each raced to New York after the terrorist attacks. What they witnessed remains seared into their memories. Twisted steel beams. Inescapable dust. Buried fire trucks. Broken bodies and almost nothing else. No computers. No office furniture. Not one shard of glass. It was like the building and everything in it “was run through a giant Cuisinart. Pulverized,” Maloney said.
He carried with him a garden shovel, a piece of steel and a bucket.
“I’m on my belly digging. There’s a hole straight down. You find a piece of clothing. You find a bra. You find a shoe. You find part of a skirt. You think, “Where the heck are they?” Maloney said. “Literally, where are they? Then, you realize they are everywhere. They are all over.”
You can’t forget that. You carry that with you. Always.
Over the years, Maloney’s annual motorcycle ride back to Ground Zero has been therapy for guys who were there — a time to reflect on the road.
“Rolling back there, you think about 10 years. You think about where you’re at, what you’re doing and what happened to the United States,” said Salata, 36. “I think about the brotherhood of firefighters. And the wife will be with me. It will be nice to have her there and help her understand more about this, that and the other things that I think about Ground Zero.”
This year the biker caravan will stop in Shanksville, Pa., where hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 crashed into a reclaimed coal strip mine that’s now a national park, and on to the Pentagon before heading into Manhattan.
“Going back to Ground Zero feels like a second home. The guys I know there, the bartenders. The memories,” Maloney said. “I’ve seen this place change year after year from when it was burning rubble down in the ‘bathtub’ as they called it to being built back up. I can see everything back to normal. Everything is in the past. It’s hard to believe those two to three inches of dust everywhere is gone and it’s all clean now. Boats and yachts in the harbor. Dogs playing in doggie parks. Freedom Tower climbing and climbing. It’s almost historic watching it.”
Burns, who spent 13 days at Ground Zero, says he’s looking forward to seeing the changes, too.
“Last time I was there was five years ago, and the footprint was still a hole in the ground,” Burns said. “It is and always will be very hallowed ground. But progress — that’s what I’m hoping to see.”
After 10 years, you can see the biggest change in Maloney right on his face — he shaved his bushy mustache.
Just about everything else feels the same, he says. As a relief lieutenant, the 52-year-old still travels to different fire houses as assigned. He lives in the same house on the Northwest Side. He’s still single. He isn’t traumatized by his 9/11 memories. And it still takes him an entire year to organize the annual motorcycle ride to Ground Zero.
The folks he leads to New York City every September say they appreciate his consistency and resolve.
“He organizes that ride to give people a sense of purpose. It gives them a way to support and remember, to mourn with the victims,” Burns said. “The ride is a good thing not only because Tommy has remembered what happened, but it was part of the healing process for others. He gave people the opportunity to remember, something maybe they normally would not have done.”
So one more time, a band of bikers will follow Maloney to New York City.
“It’s going to be intense to be there again,” Maloney said. “Be prepared.”