Over 200 miles to Ground Zero: Widow of fallen 9/11 firefighter walks in his memory
A picture of New York City firefighter Jeffrey Olsen was pinned to his wife's rucksack as she walked across the Gold Star Memorial Bridge on Friday, halfway through her trek from Boston Logan Airport to the site of the World Trade Center — the same route that two hijacked airplanes flew 20 years ago this month.
Jeffrey Olsen, smiling brightly in the photo his wife kept close on her long journey, was just 31 years old when he picked up an extra shift at New York City Fire Department's Engine 10 firehouse on Sept. 11, 2001. He was killed at Ground Zero when the twin towers collapsed.
His wife, Denise Olsen, then a mother to three young children, waited more than a month for her husband's body to be recovered from the rubble. Ever since, she's honored his memory around the anniversary of the attacks — this year by lugging a rucksack more than 200 miles to honor the nearly 3,000 people who lost their lives alongside him that day. She and her walking partners — Danny Stokes, a 49-year-old veteran from Washington, and Ezra Richter, a 17-year old boy from Boston — will end their walk at Ground Zero at 8:46 a.m. on Sept. 11, 20 years to the minute from when the first plane struck.
"Every year, I try to come up with something just to keep his name spoken," Olsen said. Last year, while in quarantine due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she took to social media to speak out about how she'd learned to handle her grief.
This year's commemoration was much more intense, but Olsen said she was glad she undertook the challenge. The group started the walk on Aug. 29, meaning they'll be walking for two weeks. At about 1 p.m. on Friday, the trio reached the halfway point of their journey: New London.
Outside the Holiday Inn in New London on Friday, Olsen's eyes filled with tears as she recalled the hours, days and weeks that followed the collapse of the towers. She remembers visiting her husband's firehouse and looking out at the mound of smoldering rubble where the towers once stood. And she remembers realizing, slowly, that her husband would not be found alive.
As her family waited for answers, they held a memorial for Jeffrey without his remains — they filled a coffin with his favorite things and drawings made by their children and mourned his loss at a memorial. And then they did it again, when more than 40 days after the attacks, his body was finally found.
"I was one of the lucky ones, I know there are a lot of families who never had those answers and it does give you some sort of closure," she said.
Olsen now lives in Manasquan, New Jersey, with her children, Vincent, Tori and Noah, and volunteers with nonprofit organizations that help members of the military.
She said that she hopes the walk will raise awareness about the shock waves that the September 11th attacks sent through the country for the past two decades — from illnesses suffered by first responders years later to the casualties of the War on Terror — and to teach younger generations about the magnitude of the tragedy.
Richter, a high school junior, wasn't alive when the attacks occurred.
"I didn't know Ezra before this, but it has just brought to my attention how important it is to keep the actual story from a personal perspective alive for people that weren't even born yet," Olsen said.
She said she was glad she did the walk for "a million reasons" and sharing her story with Richter was one of them.
"It makes it more real when you hear it from someone who has firsthand experience," she said.
Richter said he's tried to understand, and always remember, the significance of September 11. It struck him most, he said, when his own city was attacked by terrorists.
Richter, of Dorchester in South Boston, remembers being under lockdown as law enforcement searched Boston for the men responsible for bombing the finish line of the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. One of his classmates, 8-year-old Martin Richard, was killed in the attacks.
Every year, on the anniversary of the marathon bombings and on Sept. 11, Richter says a prayer and takes time to think about the lives lost. And he hopes everyone does.
"I think people should remember it (Sept. 11) because a lot of things have changed since that day and because of that day," he said. "And I think people, especially people in my generation who weren't born yet, are slowly starting to forget. But I know these two weeks will stay with me for the rest of my life."
For U.S. Army Veteran Stokes, the events that took place on Sept. 11 shaped his life. Stokes, of Tacoma, Washington, was deployed to one tour in Afghanistan and five tours in Iraq during his more than 20 years in the Army. Most of his service, he said, was the direct result of the attacks in New York.
Stokes said that being at Ground Zero this year, on the 20th anniversary, felt necessary to him.
"It all traces back to Sept. 11 when Al-Qaeda attacked our country, so it kind of seemed like there was a need for me to go there (Ground Zero)," he said. "That was the incident that launched our country into this war and that's why New York City has so much meaning to me."
Stokes came up with the idea to complete the walk, sharing the task of proudly carrying an American flag with his walking partners. After completing his military service, he started planning events for the sporting equipment company GORUCK and began visiting 9/11 memorials.
The idea for the walk originally came from a friend who had been a first responder on 9/11 and suggested they walk across the country. But Stokes shortened the route from Boston to New York when he decided to make it happen. The walk was sponsored by Utah-based coffee makers Black Rifle Coffee Company, which is owned and operated by veterans.
In New London, the walkers were greeted by firetrucks, police squad cars, officers and firefighters who gathered outside their hotel to warmly welcome them.
"We are really thankful for the outpouring of support from the New London Fire Department and the New London Police Department and the mayor of New London. We were not expecting that and it was all very encouraging and gracious of them," Stokes said. "We appreciate New London opening their arms to us as we come through."
Stokes also asked that motorists keep an eye out for them and keep a safe distance. The group was settling in for an overnight stay in New London. They'll take a rest day Saturday, hoping to swim in the pool and go get massages.
Olsen agreed that having a crowd to greet them helped with morale after a long day of walking.
"Coming in and having a reception like this really boosts your energy so much," she said, gesturing to the firetrucks, firefighters and officers outside the hotel.
Fire department Chief Tom Curcio said the city's first responders were happy to welcome Olsen, Richter and Stokes to the city. "It's important for firefighters to support one another," he said.
"It was just an honor just to meet all of them," he said, "it's so nice that they're doing this to remember her husband and all the loved ones that were lost that day."
"This year as with every year it's important that we show reverence for America's loss on 9/11 and celebrate America's resiliency to tragedy," Capt. Matt Galante of the New London Police Department said in a statement Friday. "Even though September 11, 2001, was one of our worst days, it brought out the best in us as a country. It unified us and reminded us of what we stood for and stand for. Paying tribute to all of our fallen Sister/Brother Officers and Sister/Brother Firefighters on that fateful day. Coming out to support Denise, Danny and Ezra's efforts did just that."
For Stokes, the walk was especially impactful, coming just after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan's capital city, Kabul, last month.
"It made our desire to complete this mission even stronger and just strengthened our resolve because the reason we were in their country in the first place was to prevent terrorism from spilling over into our country like it did on September 11," he said.
Also on Friday, U.S. Army Veteran Anthony DiLizia passed through Norwich and stopped in New London, completing a 2-day, 70-mile fundraising walk from Enfield to New London in honor of the 13 U.S. service members killed at the Kabul airport last week.