A 9/11 Widower's Ride of Remembrance

Thomas Heidenberger has a folder full of e-mails from people asking to accompany him on his cross-country journey.
Thomas Heidenberger has a folder full of e-mails from people asking to accompany him on his cross-country journey. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By Timothy Dwyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 23, 2006

Thomas Heidenberger was at the controls of a U.S. Airways Airbus 321, climbing out of the Los Angeles basin heading back to the East Coast, when the idea for the bike ride hit him.

It was Oct. 13, 2005, which had no special significance to him except for the weather. "I've got the best seat in the house, in the cockpit, and so I get to see things that other people don't get to see," he said. "But that particular day it dawned on me that it was exactly like 9/11/2001. Blue sky. Clear. Clean. . . . Boom, a light went on."

He always thinks of his wife, Michele, on his trips to L.A. because that's where she was heading as a flight attendant on American Airlines Flight 77 when it was hijacked and crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11. Heidenberger, 59, a commercial airline pilot for nearly 40 years, is a member of the board of the Pentagon Memorial Fund, but he decided to do something on his own to raise money.

So high above the Southwest, he decided to put a bike ride together.

He'd ride for his wife. He'd ride for all 33 crew members who were working on the four flights that were hijacked on 9/11. And he would ride for the 3,000 people who died in the attacks.

He will ride to raise money for the Pentagon Memorial, the Flight 93 National Memorial in Somerset County, Pa., and the World Trade Center Memorial. He hopes to raise $100,000 for each memorial.

He is calling his bike ride "Airline Ride Across America." He and four other riders will start the trip at Dockweiler Beach, at the end of the runway at Los Angeles International Airport, on April 1, and they will ride for 33 days.

They will pedal through 14 or 15 states -- the route is being planned -- and end at the Pentagon on May 8 after stops in Shanksville, Pa., and New York City.

Heidenberger began organizing the cross-country bike trip in the kitchen of his Chevy Chase home. Yesterday, evidence of his planning was spread across a small round table in the corner of the kitchen: letters, files, contact information for state police departments from one end of the country to the other. Downstairs is a stationary bike that he rides every day to get in saddle shape. Two outdoor bikes are at the ready for nice days.

When he speaks of his wife, his eyes fill up. She is the one who worked and supported him when he was studying to be a pilot. She was always there at the finish line when he ran marathons or competed in biathlons. "Sometimes she would ride her bike beside me when I ran," he said.

He decided he wanted to raise awareness as well as money after talking to people across the country.

"Once you leave Washington, D.C., or the Beltway or you leave New York itself, people don't know enough about 9/11 because they don't know anyone who was directly impacted by it," he said. "As I have been flying across the country I have been trying to figure out how to get some money for the Pentagon Memorial, and I thought, 'Hey, what a great way to do this.' "

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