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Local firefighters relive painful memories in annual 9/11 pilgrimage to NYC

Chicago Fire Lt. Tom Maloney front left Chicago Firefighter Stan Salatlook over constructisite 9/11 Memorial Ground Zero New York September

Chicago Fire Lt. Tom Maloney, front left, and Chicago Firefighter Stan Salata look over the construction site of the 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero in New York, September 11, 2011. | Allison Joyce for the Chicago Sun Times

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Updated: November 30, 2011 12:16AM

Editor’s note: Mark Konkol rode his 2007 Harley Ultra Classic alongside Chicago firefighter Tom Maloney on the journey to Ground Zero. Check his updates on Twitter @KonkolsKorner and on his blog at

GROUND ZERO — For Chicago Firefighter Stan Salata the annual motorcycle pilgrimage from Sox Park to New York City is “group therapy.”

“I don’t know if I’m ever going to get past what I went through at Ground Zero. But this ride is something I need every year,” said Salata, who rushed to Manhattan after terrorist-hijacked planes crumbled the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001. “And I start to feel better when I get closer to New York and my FDNY brothers. It’s my second home.”

On Saturday, 200 bikers from Chicago on a memorial pilgrimage to the sites where terrorists attacked America — the Fight 93 crash site in Shanksville, Pa., the Pentagon and Ground Zero — joined thousands of other motorcyclists on a police-escorted ride from Hope, N.J. to New York. It was the final leg of a 1,150 mile pilgrimage led by Chicago Fire Lt. Tom Maloney.

“Coming into New York I didn’t just think about today,” Maloney said Saturday at an end-of-the-ride rally in Brooklyn. “I thought about the last five days coming in. We left with sunny skies and good hearts. But I was thinking about all that rain. I think that rain was all the families and the victims crying down upon us and watching us like angels every step of the way that we’d be safe. And we made it to New York City.”

At Ground Zero, the Chicago firefighters who rushed there a decade ago said they were quietly reliving painful memories.

Chicago Firefighter Kevin O’Grady, who said he’s never talked about his experiences sifting through World Trade Center rubble, paused at the corner of Greenwich and Albany.

“There’s still a lot of pain for me. There’s a lot of anger,” he said. “I hope our pilgrimage to come here, it’s our small token, and that someone appreciates that we remember their child, their loved one. Being back here is very eerie.”

O’Grady searched names of victims listed on a mural hanging on a chain-link fence. He circled the name William E. Krukowski, a New York firefighter who died that fateful day. O’Grady thinks of Krukowski often and how they had parallel lives.

“We both new the same girl in New York. He was at Tower 21. I was at Tower 21. He was divorced. I was divorced. He went to Holy Cross High School. I went to Holy Cross. He had a 7-year old son. My son was 7,” O’Grady said. “But for the grace of God there go I. That could have been the Sears Tower. This goes through my mind a lot.”

Ground Zero first responders — Maloney, Salata and O’Grady, among them — were not allowed to attend the national memorial ceremony on Sunday. So they met along the heavily guarded perimeter and ventured up to the 20th Floor balcony of the World Center Hotel where they could see the memorial fountain set in place of World Trade Center’s south tower. Maloney spent most of his time digging through the rubble there.

“I got choked up. I’ll be honest,” he said. “Being up there I feel stronger. I’m up here with families. I’m here for them. I’m here.”

And even though he planned on ending his annual biker pilgrimage after this year, Maloney says he’s thinking of organizing the trip again. Maybe he’ll do it with a smaller group. Maybe he’ll ride alone.

“I’ve got to get back to myself for once. I got to get back working on my home. Unfinished project I have to focus on that,” he said. “But how can I not? I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.”

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