FARMINGTON HILLS, Mich. — Jim Etzin knew he had to do something.
In the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the Farmington Hills firefighter/paramedic wanted to come up with a way he could demonstrate the gratitude he felt for his fellow first responders.
So, he went for a walk. A very long walk.
It’s been almost 15 years since Etzin and eight other members of southeastern Michigan’s firefighting community took part in a nine-day, 755-mile trek from the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit to the Brooklyn Bridge.
Etzin, now 50, was joined on the journey by four others from his department, three from Trenton Fire and a retired firefighter from Flint. He and his walking partners were blown away by the outpouring of emotion from residents of the communities in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York through which they passed, Etzin said.
The walkers were “trying to act as a conduit to unite those communities and give them a mechanism to mourn the losses and celebrate the country all at the same time,” he said recently at the Farmington Hills fire headquarters while looking through old pictures and video clips of the trek.
Schoolchildren handed them teddy bears to give to firefighters in New York. Others gave them donations, even though the walk wasn’t designed to raise money. Some entire towns were waiting for them with a parade of fire trucks.
“We tried to bring these communities together, and I think we did that,” said Larry Gauthier, a fellow Farmington Hills firefighter and participant in the “Bridge to Bridge” walk, as it came to be known.
The U.S. has never been as united as it was in those days, Etzin said.
As for now? Not so much, he said.
“Sometimes we’re guilty of putting (unifying) events behind us sooner than we should,” Etzin said.
Signs of unity were everywhere following the tragedies in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania. But Etzin said that feeling of solidarity among Americans is a distant memory as the 15th anniversary of the attacks arrives Sunday.
A Gallup poll of Americans’ national pride hit its lowest point this year.
Etzin hopes, though, that a feeling of national togetherness could return, as soon as next year.
“Perhaps with this presidential election, whoever ends up winning the election will help unite the country,” he said.
Regardless, Etzin said and he his compatriots who took part in the walk of their lives a decade-and-a-half ago will never forget that experience.
“I think if it had a positive effect on those people that we encountered, then, yes, I’m very proud of it,” he said.