Charles Costello, Jr., was an avid cyclist who dreamed of taking a cross-country bike ride.

But he never got to fulfill that desire.

Costello, an elevator technician, rushed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, after terrorist planes crashed into the building, to help firefighters responding to the emergency. His wife, Mary Costello, says the 46-year-old was last seen running into Tower 1 at 9 a.m. that horrific day.

But now Costello is making that trip across the country in a different way.

Marv Williams, a retired Los Angeles City firefighter who lives in Chatsworth, is carrying Costello’s photo with him as he takes part in the 2021 Ride for America. The cross-country bike ride began at the Santa Monica Pier on Sunday, Aug. 1, and will cover approximately 3,100 miles and 14 states over 40 days before reaching New York City on Sept. 9 — two days before the events to commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and the attack on World Trade Center.

Photos Courtesy of Ride for America

The ride is a fundraiser to provide financial assistance to fire and military service-based groups and causes and bring awareness to the illnesses many of the surviving responders still suffer today. It is also to honor the first responders who lost their lives in the terrorist attacks on Pennsylvania, New York, and Virginia.

The goal of this year’s ride is to raise $100,000 for the San Francisco Firefighter Cancer Prevention Foundation, Friends of Firefighters, The Fire Family Foundation, and The Gary Sinise Foundation – RISE Program. 

“We’re glad to help other people,” said Williams, noting that each rider had to raise a minimum of $6,500 to take part in the event.

At age 71, Williams — who retired as a firefighter 10 years ago — is the oldest of the group of 15 active and retired firefighters making the trip. They are part of Fire Velo, a national cycling organization based in Murrieta, that is one of the event’s organizers.

This is the second time he’s participating in the 9/11 ride. The first time was 10 years ago with six other firefighters.

Preparing for the journey

To prepare for the grueling ride, Williams said he has been putting in between 150-200 miles of roadwork per week for the past month.

“That’s the hard part — you hate the training, it gets boring,” Williams said during a phone interview with the  San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol on Monday, Aug. 2, from Indio after finishing a 70-mile ride that day.

“I was looking forward to start riding with the guys and stuff. You have somebody to talk to; it’s easier riding, you’re not pushing it. It’s an easier pace because there are other people who are slower than you,” he said.

Still, hills and the weather are factors, especially in the middle of the summer.

“It’s unbelievable how much water you drink,” Williams said, noting the riders stop whenever they need to refill their water bottles, take electrolytes, or rest in the shade.

A motorhome and two support cars are accompanying the group, to carry water, food and provide assistance if needed.

“Some people stop for the day because of cramps. It’s not easy,” he said.

And the heat in California is brutal. One of the riders noted a 130-degree temperature with a thermometer on his bike as they traveled through the Coachella Valley.

To beat the heat, the riders start early, at around 3 or 4 a.m., when the weather is cooler.

“The heat gets to me a little more than it did then,” said Williams, when asked how things have changed from the first ride he took 10 years ago.

Stops along the way

Another change this time: because of COVID-19, they’re staying in hotels overnight rather than fire stations.

But they will visit some fire stations, as well as the Oklahoma City National Memorial, the Flight 93 National Memorial near Shanksville, PA, and the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial before they arrive at Ground Zero, the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York City.

The riders also plan to attend some of the ceremonies for the 20th anniversary of the terrorists’ attack.

It’s a day Williams will never forget. He first heard about the attacks on his way to work that day.

“I was thinking, ‘it was probably a small plane’ and then it goes, ‘another plane,’ and then I thought, ‘Holy cow.’ I sped up and got to work,” he recalls.

When Williams arrived, all of his fellow firefighters were glued to the TV. All the drills for the day were canceled and they were placed on high alert.

Williams who is on the board of the Firefighters First Credit Union said it collected $2 million and he delivered it to the New York Fire Department after the attack. Following the presentation of the check, he went to the World Trade Center and witnessed the bodies of firefighters being unearthed from under the rubble.

“We stood and saluted, and it got to me,” Williams said.

Organizing the Ride

Photos Courtesy of Ride for America

The 2021 Ride for America took over a year to organize due to the pandemic. And despite the heat, storms, and other issues they’re sure to encounter along the way, Williams said it’s worth it.

He knows returning to the 9/11 Memorial in New York “is going to be pretty emotional.”

The Memorial is located at the site of the former World Trade Center. Its twin reflecting pools are each nearly an acre in size and feature the largest man-made waterfalls in North America.

The names of the men, women, and children killed in the attacks are inscribed on bronze parapets surrounding the pools. They include the 343 firefighters from the New York Fire Department, as well as the “Elevator Man”— Charles Costello, Jr. — whose photo Williams is carrying.

Costello’s wife Mary gave Williams the photo.

“He wasn’t able to ride across the country,” Williams said, “but he’s going all the way with me.”