Wineka column: Salisbury battalion chief biking for fallen comrade

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 30, 2012

SALISBURY — People who know Jay Baker realize he’s been riding a bicycle most of his life.
The same could be said about his dedication to firefighting.
So when those two worlds come together in this year’s inaugural Carolina Brotherhood ride from Wilmington to Asheville, Baker will be one of the 30 firefighter cyclists pedaling for the family of a fallen brother.
“I’ll be the old guy in the back,” Baker says.
Not necessarily. Baker, 46, can hold his own on his Fuji.
While the goal of each cyclist is to raise a minimum of $400 for the July 23-27 ride, Baker already has raised twice that amount, and he wants to be the top fundraiser.
“I’m passionate about it,” says Baker, a battalion chief with the Salisbury Fire Department and chief of the Spencer Fire Department.
Money collected by the Carolina Brotherhood ride will go toward college scholarships for the three children of Capt. Jeffrey Bowen, an Asheville firefighter who died in a medical office building fire July 28, 2011.
Bowen is survived by his mother, wife and three children.
When Baker, fellow battalion chief David Morris and Salisbury Fire Chief Bob Parnell heard the news of Bowen’s death last July, they immediately left Salisbury and were in Asheville that night.
Salisbury’s department dealt with its own tragedy four years ago, when firefighters Vic Isler Sr. and Justin Monroe were lost in the Salisbury Millwork fire.
“It was eerily similar to what we went through,” Baker says of Asheville’s experience.
The Carolina Brotherhood contingent of 30 riders will be arriving in Asheville on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the fire that killed Bowen.
In all, the trek from Wilmington will be almost 400 miles. Baker says the group will average about 75 miles a day.
The legs will go from Wilmington to Elizabethtown, Elizabethtown to Rockingham, Rockingham to Charlotte, Charlotte to Forest City and Forest City to Asheville.
The cyclists will be staying overnight in fire departments, a Masonic lodge and the union hall in Charlotte.
Baker says if he has any concern about the trip it would be how he’ll cope with the heat and humidity, though he thinks his summer training leading up to the ride will prepare him for that.
The other big challenge he’ll face will be the 6,000 feet increase in elevation on the last day.
“It’s kind of hard to simulate that climb into Asheville,” Baker says.
Parnell told Baker about the ride after receiving information about the establishment of the nonprofit Carolina Brotherhood.
The Salisbury department has been supportive from the start, Baker says, and colleagues already have stepped up to cover the two shifts he will be missing because of the ride.
Baker intends to give updates on his journey on Facebook and Twitter throughout the five days.
“Sharing my agony,” he says.
A support trailer will be carrying the riders’ clothes, toiletries and electronic devices.
Baker said the cyclists will be moving down the road as a group throughout the trip. If someone has a flat tire or some other calamity, the rest of the cyclists will wait for him — or her. There is one female participant.
Among the 30 firefighters, nine are from Asheville; eight from Charlotte; three from Charleston, S.C.; two from Raleigh; two from Golden Gate Fire Department in Florida; and one each from Salisbury, Wilson, Columbia (S.C.), Big Corkscrew Island (Fla.), Dana and Wilmington.
The group also will have nine support personnel, representing members of the Charlotte, Asheville, Columbia, Charleston and Henderson County departments.
The men from Florida participated in last year’s Brotherhood ride from Florida to Ground Zero in New York, to mark the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
A segment of that ride passed through Salisbury, including an overnight stay. On their ride through Rowan County, Baker fell in behind the group with his bicycle.
The Carolina Brotherhood, an offshoot of last year’s bigger ride, intends to be an annual cycling event made up of firefighters and police officers from the Carolinas.
Participating cyclists will ride in the name of their fallen brothers and sisters from the Carolinas.
Baker has been a firefighter for 25 years, first as a volunteer in Spencer. He has been a full-time member of the Salisbury Fire Department for 19 years.
Baker often rides his bicycle from Spencer to Salisbury for his 24-hour shift. When he’s not commuting, Baker likes to change up his recreational rides through the county.
Sometimes he’ll cruise down Long Ferry and Bringle Ferry roads. He might take a southern trip to China Grove and Landis. He also has a route he follows through downtown Salisbury.
Most of the time, these are solitary trips — something he won’t have to worry about in the Carolina Brotherhood ride.
“I’m looking forward to the fellowship with the other riders,” he says.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263 or mwineka@
Carolina Brotherhood ride
What: 30 firefighters from the Carolinas (and Florida) are cycling from Wilmington to Asheville to raise money for the family of Capt. Jeffrey Bowen, an Asheville firefighter who died in a fire July 28, 2011.
When: July 23-27
Noteworthy: Jay Baker, a battalion chief with the Salisbury Fire Department, is one of the cyclists.
How to sponsor Baker: Go to Click on the “Riders” link. Find Baker’s name and photograph and click on the link that says “Sponsor Jay.” Fill out the information from there. You could also go directly to
Good to know: Carolina Brotherhood is a nonprofit organization, and donations are tax-deductible.