Taking a ride with 999 in the wake of tragedy

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A large group of cyclist begins their ride from the corner of 9th and 9th after gathering after 9pm in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 26, 2018, for the weekly ride that has become known as the 999 Ride. The inclusive, all-welcoming slow casual social ride happens year round on Thursday nights, with riders often pedaling into the early morning hours. Newly released video shows rider Cameron Hooyer being struck and killed by a FrontRunner train at a downtown railroad crossing during last weeks ride when the 22-year-old failed to stop or heed the warning signals before crossing the tracks during the group ride.

I was almost five hours into what was one of the hardest assignments I’ve ever had — explaining a popular weekly bike ride in Salt Lake City — when an Iraq War veteran walked up and gave me the answer. I get goosebumps when I think about our conversation.

I’d been assigned to cover the 999 Ride, a popular, meandering bike ride around town that’s happened every Thursday night for nearly seven years. It’s grown in popularity, and this week hundreds of people showed up at 9th East and 9th South around 9 p.m. and began a slow cruise through the city about 10 p.m.

I’d heard of the ride and had planned to join some week to see what it was about. I never made the time. Then the ride catapulted into the public spotlight on July 19, when 22-year-old Cameron Hooyer was hit and killed at a railroad crossing during that week’s ride. I was dispatched to find out what 999 was about.

But I wasn’t comfortable jumping in, making an announcement that a reporter was present and asking if anyone wanted their thoughts, feelings and emotions printed in The Salt Lake Tribune.

Several in this group were still mourning Hooyer’s death. I wanted to respect that. So I slowly rode with the pack of maybe 200 people, making our way south toward Fairmont Park at about 10:15 p.m.

The night’s ride, as is typical, took a new path from the week before. It stayed mainly on the south and east sides of town.

The group clogged 900 East. Several people flanked the sides and called out for anyone in the group to steer clear of oncoming traffic. A bit more cautious than usual, I was told. The group paused for a UTA TRAX train on the S-Line in Sugar House.

The ride is legal. Bikes have similar rights and rules on roads as car drivers. So the 999 Ride is almost as if drivers plan their 5 p.m. weekday traffic jams on Interstate 15 and slowly inch their way home together. But instead of rush hour road rage, this group is filled with a cacophony of laughter, chatter and music playing from speakers.

A man pulls a trailer with a speaker playing AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck.” Another man plays music from a speaker on a bike with a toddler in a carrier in the back. Really, there’s music coming from everywhere. If you don’t like the song, change the station by speeding up or slowing down and there’s a good chance you’ll find something more to your taste.

There are frequent shouts of “Happy Thursday!" that echo through the moving crowd of fast riders and slow riders. People ride mountain bikes, cruisers, road bikes, BMX bikes. Bikes that are lit with displays of neon lights, headlights, taillights, no lights.

“There’s so many people that come here for so many different reasons,” Mark Lavelle, 23, told me. “To have the streets to ourselves for a little bit. … We’re just having fun.”

For Greg Couch, the ride is a weekly opportunity to feel young.

At age 51, he’s ridden his bike about 1,000 miles this year. But he says he’s old.

“It’s just fun to hang out here and ride,” he says on a pit stop close to 11 p.m.

Having a reporter ride along this night unnerves some in the crowd, which loses a few dozen people on the way from Fairmont Park through sprinklers that spit swampy water across the dark roads in Sugar House Park.

When we stop, I try talking with the man whose occasional directions were enough to keep such a large group in motion. The Iraq veteran doesn’t think it’s such a good idea to talk to me. No conversation is off the record with a reporter, he warns his friend. He’s not right, but I don’t correct him and his friend pays him no mind.

The vet, a Salt Lake City resident, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. He avoids me and talks about me with others in the group. I become more aware of glances from people during our stop at the park.

I overhear more about the video that was released earlier in the day showing the events leading up to Hooyer’s death. It turns out he wasn’t stuck between the tracks, the video shows. After a freight train passed the crossing at 900 S. 600 West, members of the group crossed. Then the lights began flashing again and the gates came back down. Some members of the group on the west side disregarded the warning lights and crossed. Hooyer rode around the gates and started to cross. The video ends as a Frontrunner train enters the frame with Hooyer in its path.

Seeing the video was a shock to some on tonight’s ride who believed Hooyer was trapped before he was killed. Some watched it just before taking off from 9th and 9th.

Tonight’s ride isn’t a memorial to Hooyer. One was held Saturday night at Liberty Park. Instead the ride was a return to the normal, if crowded, aimless tour of Salt Lake City.

The group leaves Sugar House Park and dwindles in size on its way to a park near the University of Utah. Once there, I sit alone for a few minutes before being approached by the veteran. He’s ready to talk with me. While he doesn’t want me to use his name, he allows me to tell his story.

After returning from the height of the war in Iraq, he suffered from PTSD and depression. He still suffers.

He met with doctors. He tried medications. He’s been committed. It didn’t help. He found out about the 999 Ride when the pack passed his house near Fairmont Park about a year ago as he was in the grips of a dark bout of depression, and he decided to join on a ride. 999, he says, has helped him.

Now, he is surrounded by friends. He still suffers, even tonight. But for one night a week, he is one of the riders playing music from a speaker on the back of his bike, feeling the freedom on the near-empty road. It’s nearing 2 a.m. and instead of lying awake alone with his thoughts, he’s talking with friends and fellow riders about where to get a late-night snack before everyone parts ways and gets to bed by 3 a.m. or later.

The ride makes sense to him, and he looks forward to it all week. But he’s afraid Hooyer’s death will lead the city to crack down on the ride, maybe prevent it from happening. He doesn’t know what would happen if that came to be.

As of now, there are no plans for any changes to the city’s approach to the ride. But they’re watching.

“We have let the officers know that it’s happening and where it’s happening and time frame,” Salt Lake City Police Department spokeswoman Christina Judd told me Friday afternoon. “But other than that we’re saying if there is a problem we’ll respond, but we’ll let everybody do what they want to do.”