Blaring sirens cleared the way as a swarm of bicyclists wearing fire helmets made their down Laurens Street in downtown Aiken and into the fire garage of the Aiken Department of Public Safety on Tuesday afternoon. The 40 cyclists are riding 700 miles this week to honor fallen law enforcement officers and firefighters from North Carolina and South Carolina, including Master Cpl. Sandy Rogers. Together, they are called the Carolina Brotherhood.
The ride began on Saturday in Rocky Mount, N.C. Today, the riders begin the final leg of their race, riding into Honea Path, continuing on to Edneyville, N.C., Marion, N.C., and ending in Boone, N.C.
The brotherhood riders were greeted at Aiken Public Safety headquarters by a crowd of officers and residents that included Rogers' father, sister and brother.
Rogers was shot and killed on Jan. 28, 2012. Her final call of duty was responding to a resident's concerns about a suspicious vehicle in Eustis Park.
"(The ride)'s been great," said Chris Tackson, a firefighter from Charlotte. "It's been four days, it's been hot, it's been long, but it's been amazing. Everybody's sticking together."
Jim Squittieri, also a Charlotte firefighter, said the group had ridden 375 miles in four days.
"People are falling out. There's dehydration. I got attacked by a dog, but we're still pushing through it," he said.
Squittieri said the first event last year was held in honor of fallen Asheville firefighter Jeff Bowen.
"We wanted to do something for the Carolinas," he said. "We ... made a reason to do it. It started last year for Capt. Bowen, and each year we're gonna ride for police officers and firefighters fallen in the line of duty."
The Brotherhood raises money for the families of the fallen officers through donations, T-shirt sales and other fundraisers. Last year, they raised $34,000.
"You could raise a million dollars, and I don't think it'll be anything compared to the emotional support, seeing all these men and women here, giving their own time away from their families for people that we don't even know, showing that the brotherhood is real," Squittieri said.
Each of Rogers' family members received one of the T-shirts bearing her name.
"It's amazing," Rogers' sister Virginia Johnson said while holding Squittieri's hand. "These guys have really gone through hell, last year and this year. There are two that's gotten hurt since they've been traveling. They've put their lives on hold to do this and honor my sister, and it's greatly appreciated."
"I think it's wonderful, and I wish I knew about y'all beforehand," she said, looking at Squittieri.
Tackson said the best part is meeting new people.
"From this experience, you're friends for life," he said.
The riders all wear black and blue uniforms with shirts bearing the name of the six officers being honored this year. At the beginning of the race, they also had their names written on their legs in marker to get to know each other.
Dena Ali, a firefighter from Raleigh, said she enjoyed the scenic ride into town.
"The ride from Columbia to Aiken has been the prettiest for me so far," she said while scrolling through pictures in her phone of farms, hills and water. "The biggest thing I noticed was how beautiful all the farmland was."
Ali said the best part of the journey is meeting the family members of the fallen officers.
"When they talk, when they thank us, it reminds us why we're doing this," she said. "No matter how hard the day was, you forget about that because you realize what you've done for somebody else."
For the last half mile of the ride into town, the riders stopped and put on their fire helmets. Chief Charles Barranco, director of Aiken Public Safety, saw them pull over and switch their helmets.
"A fireman's always very proud of their helmet. It's sort of a badge to them," he said. "When you die doing the job that you've sworn to protect, it's a sacrifice that not only an individual makes, but a department makes, a family makes, a community makes."
Written by Teddy Kulmala