The welcome they received in Carrabelle last week was friendly and warm, not as hot as pedaling along the 90-mile stretch from Perry.
The caravan of firefighters and cops on bicycles arrived Wednesday afternoon, greeted at the Wakulla-Franklin county line by the Legion Riders motorcyclists from Camp Gordon Johnston Post 82, and a sheriff’s escort.
“Yesterday was just zapping everybody, said Jeff Morse, sharing that heat rising from the asphalt had pushed up the temperature gauges on the bicycles to 108 degrees.
Morse is founder and president of the Brotherhood Ride, an annual bicycle ride whose concept dates back to June 18, 2007, the day nine firefighters from Charleston, South Carolina perished in a blaze.
“We wanted to help the families of these brave professionals. We wanted to provide financial as well as emotional support to them. We wanted them to know that their loved ones would not be forgotten in the days, months and years to come,” Morse wrote on the website www.brotherhoodride.com. “”We knew whatever we did to honor these heroes should not and would not be easy. Whatever we did would be representative of the pain and loss that the families of these nine brothers would be feeling.”
The first ride, in 2008, was nearly 600 miles from Naples to Charleston, and in 2009, in Florida for a fallen Fort Myers policeman. In later years the rides would go from Marianna to Houston, Texas; from Naples to New York City; around Central and South Florida; and from Emmitsburg, Maryland to Boston, Massachusetts.
Carrabelle marked the next to the last stop on this year’s ride, which began July 23 in North Naples, with stops in Arcadia, Lakeland, Ocala, Perry, Panama City and Fort Walton Beach, where it ended Friday.
This year’s ride was dedicated to one first responder fallen in the line of duty from Georgia, Lt. Randy Parker from the Macon-Bibb County Fire Department; and to five fallen from Florida - Deputy William Myers from Okaloosa County, Officer Jared Forsyth from the Ocala Police Department., and three K9 officers, Igor from Kissimmee, and Jimmy and Hector from Hialeah.
On the front of this year’s racing shirt were the small patches of several others, including that of Danielle D. Benedetto, a victim of colon cancer, a fellow firefighter for whom Bill Lombardo, 52, chief of South Trail Fire and Rescue near Fort Myers, was making his first ride.
“I never did this before. I trained for two months,” he said. “The things that were really tearing us up are the heat and the headwind.”
Others like Jason True, a volunteer firefighter from Frostproof, now on his third ride, were far more experienced. Last year he tallied 6,000 miles on his 22-speed Specialized bicycle, often on rougher rides where he averaged far better times than last week’s ride was doing.
“As a cyclist, this ride is totally different than other rides,” he said. “We stop every 20 miles for a rest stop.”
True said that heat and dehydration scratched a couple riders.
Lt. Ralph Longoria, 54, from North Port Fire and Rescue in southwest Florida, was on his third ride, atop a Trek Emonia, a backup bike to replace an earlier one that had broken a spoke.
“I just follow the truck,” he said, referring to the support vehicle that accompanies the riders. “These guys are cyclists. I’m juts a guy riding a bike.”
For Joe Dannenbaum, a volunteer firefighter from Brazos, Texas, the conditions were not unlike those on his first ride in 2014, where the stretch from Louisiana to Houston was brutal. “The heat is killing us,” he said. “That’s how it is back home.
He said several guys grew dehydrated and needed IV fluids to get them back on their bikes. “I’ve helped push people up the hill,” said Dannenbaum.
Lori Ashworth, 43, an emergency room director and volunteer EMT from Sebring, was one of three women on the ride, a comparative novice who has been cycling for a year, her longest ride 63 miles.
“I’ve been able to make it every day,” she said. “I love what the Brotherhood stands for. It’s all about doing something bigger than yourself.
“It’s a huge growth issue for me personally, on what my limits are,” she said.
In addition to firefighters and police officers, the ride included Tim Elder, 55, from the Florida Forest Service in Okeechobee, who was welcomed locally by Tate’s Hell staffers Chuck Harris and Jimmy Briscoe. Among the most senior members was Bob Salvaggio, 59, a Naples fire inspector, now on his fifth ride.
“The heat is just unbearable,” he said. “Without a doubt it’s hard.”
Carrabelle’s overwhelming welcome was coordinated to a large degree by Carrabelle City Clerk Keisha Messer, and Lisa Munson, director of the Carrabelle Chamber of Commerce. They and their crew were able to secure the support of the Legion Riders, who later served the bicyclists an evening meal at the Carrabelle Christian Center, where the cyclists camped out on air mattresses inside.
The riders were able to use the showers at C-Quarters Marina, and in the morning were treated to a lavish breakfast courtesy of Hog Wild, served up first thing Thursday morning by Ken La Paz and his staff. Attending the breakfast were as many EMTs that could be spared by Weems, along with the top brass from the sheriff’s office and a host of other dignitaries.
In his remarks at the breakfast, Morse said close to $360,000 has been raised over nine years by the Brotherhood Ride, and presented plaques of appreciation to Munson, Smith and La Paz. Munson presented Morse with a poster signed by Carrabelle well-wishers, as well as a brooch inspired by the Blue Lives Matter movement, handcrafted by Deb Kirschenbaum, owner of Island Girl Gifts. Morse said he plans to add the brooch to the ride’s annual silent auction.
Before they hopped on their bikes to head towards Apalachicola, the riders huddled together, locked in arms, and saluted their fallen comrades, including two from Franklin County (See sidebar). In addition they were riding for Corey Todd, a deputy in the final stages of leukemia.
Bill Gorman, a retired lieutenant from the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office, shared the narrative, as the group had an audio link with Elaine Maddox, chaplain with the Dallas Fire Department, who said she was meeting later with families of the officers shot and killed last month, together with the medics and emergency room doctors who treated the wounded.
She gave a Scripture lesson, reading from Deuteronomy 4:9 “Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them.”
Gorman was effusive in his praise of the Carrabelle welcome. “I would like to personally adopt Franklin County, this great church, the city of Apalachicola, the city of Carrabelle,” he said. “This is the greatest stop we have ever had, the outpouring of love and support.”
As the sun began its rise in the sky, the cyclists headed towards Apalachicola, where they were greeted by Apalachicola Mayor Van Johnson and Police Chief Bobby Varnes, who presented them with the department’s newest patch at a stop at the fire station
From there it was west towards Port St. Joe. As the caravan passed the spot on U.S. 98 where Officer Fred Babb was gunned down nearly 50 years ago (see sidebar), they pedaled in silence, solemnly honoring his memory.