Darien welcomes veteran, widow and teen walking 200+ miles to honor 20th anniversary of Sept. 11

DARIEN — As a veteran, Danny Stokes wanted to do something special for the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack.

So, the 49-year-old, along with Denise Olsen, the widow of a New York City firefighter, and 17-year-old Ezra Richter are walking more than 200 miles to ground zero while carrying a United States flag to honor those who died and were affected by the tragedy.

“I want to be there on the 11th and pay my respects to the fallen and remember the heroes,” Stokes said.

The trek started Aug. 29 at the Boston Logan International Airport where, on Sept. 11, 2001, two planes destined for Los Angeles were hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center in New York City, killing almost 3,000 people.

The group plans to be at ground zero by 8:46 a.m. Saturday where, 20 years ago, the first hijacked plane flew into the north tower.

On their journey Thursday, the trio stopped in Darien to visit the local volunteer fire department.

“All these small towns have really taken care of us,” Stokes said. “It’s really inspiring.”

Stokes added that the group has been welcomed with open arms in many southern Connecticut towns.

Stokes, a resident in Tacoma, Wash., served in the U.S. Army for 23 years. He retired as a captain in 2015, but while serving, he knew a lot of people who joined the military after 9/11 to fight for their country.

Olsen, who now lives in Manasquan, N.J., said every anniversary is different. Twenty years ago, her husband of three years, New York City Firefighter Jeff Olsen, died while trying to help people. The couple at the time had three young kids: an 8-year-old, a 3-year-old and an 18-month-old baby.

Jeff Olsen hadn’t been on the job long — less than five years — when he died.

Come Sept. 11, Olsen, now 53, says some years she feels okay. And some years she is lying under the covers “waiting for Sept. 12.”

“This walk for me is the beginning of a new chapter,” she said. “And I’m hoping this new chapter isn’t just for me.”

She wants to raise awareness for other Sept. 11-related tragedies, such as firefighters who have been diagnosed with cancer related to toxic exposure. She also wants to bring attention to the high suicide rate among military veterans, as well as the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder.

“All of that is a ripple effect from Sept. 11,” she said. “It’s a way, way bigger event than just those towers collapsing.”

Olsen and Stokes have been friends for six years, participating in many memorials together. Olsen decided to join Stokes on his walk.

At the start of their trip, Olsen and Stokes were staying with some friends in Boston. Their friends’ son, 17-year-old Richter, had just returned from a backpacking trip in Vermont and decided to walk across New England as well.

The walk has been five or six months in the making, Stokes said. The route mainly trades freeways for back roads, and the areas have been “fairly pedestrian friendly,” he said.

Throughout the trip, the group has seen nothing but kindness and support.

“It’s completely unexpected,” Olsen said. “I thought we were just going to be going on a quiet walk ourselves.”

And that gave her hope.

“Even though it seems like our country is falling apart, it’s really not,” Olsen said. “People are people wherever you go.”

Though the walk started out as a way to honor those that died from the Sept. 11 attacks, the trio are accepting donations. Anything the group doesn’t use for lodging, food or other necessities on their journey will go toward either the families of the 13 troops who died in Kabul recently or toward the Afghan allies relief effort. The trio hasn’t officially decided which effort, if not both, to give to.

Donations can be made via Venmo to @Denise-Olsen-2.

liz.hardaway@hearst.com