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updated: 7/7/2011 11:14 AM

Bartlett unfurls 75 pounds of U.S. flag

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  • The Patriot Flag, flying in San Diego

    The Patriot Flag, flying in San Diego

By Jeff Engelhardt
Daily Herald correspondent

There will be 75 pounds of American red, white and blue flying from the Bartlett Community Center Thursday night in honor of those who died on 9/11 and the armed forces who continue to serve in the global war on terror.

Bartlett is one of the many stops the large Patriot Flag is making as it tours the country, stopping in 50 states over 50 weeks before concluding in New York City, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pa., on the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks.

Bartlett Police Cmdr. Michael McGuigan said the flag is an important reminder of the risks firefighters and police officers take every day.

"(Sept. 11) was one of the largest rescue missions ever done and it was because firefighters and police officers risked their lives," McGuigan said. "I think the flag means a lot to the community because it is a symbol that we won't forget the sacrifices made on that day."

What has turned into a national attraction, drawing thousands of people at many stops, started as a modest idea between California firefighter Mitch Mendler and his friend Wayne Louth during a funeral service for a highly decorated World War II veteran.

Mendler said the veteran, who was known as "Flag Man" in Southern California, initially inspired the men and the idea just kept growing.

Mendler said he knew the dream of flying the flag at fire departments and parks around the country could become a reality once FedEx offered free shipment, saving the men $500 to $1,000 that they would have had to pay every time the flag went to a different state.

"I wanted to make a statement … and it doesn't get much more simple than 'United we stand,'" Mendler said. "I wanted the whole world to say, 'You know, these folks are united.'"

The strongest voice behind the flag has been retired New York firefighter Joe Torrillo.

Torrillo was not only caught under the rubble of the first World Trade Center tower, but he found himself trapped again after part of the second tower collapsed on a boat where he was being treated for his potentially fatal injuries.

After he was miraculously rescued from the rubble, he has tried to be a voice for the colleagues he lost that day and the troops who still fight. The Patriot Flag, he said, is one of the most moving and effective ways to keep that voice strong.

"People call me a hero for what I did that day, but just because I have a uniform and a chest full of medals doesn't make me a hero," Torrillo said. "Heroes don't have a chance to tell their story."

Becky Ginsbach, a project assistant for Patriot Flag, said the flag inspired one of the most emotional and powerful rallies in the history of the small town of Estacada, Ore., where she is from.

"We had about 2,000 school kids come into town and sing the national anthem," she said. "What it can do for towns, whether large or small, is incredible."

Bartlett was able to get the flag after James Barbeau, public education coordinator for Bartlett Fire Protection District, saw it displayed in Chicago in June. Barbeau asked about bringing the flag to Bartlett and was able to secure a date.

Bartlett police and fire departments have worked together with the Veterans of Foreign Wars to try and create an incredible experience for the community Thursday.

The event will start at 7 p.m. at the Bartlett Community Center, 700 S. Bartlett Road. The fire district's ladder truck will raise the Patriot Flag, which is 56 feet long. Those who attend will be able to sign a trimmed section of the flag, a guest book and banners to honor 9/11 responders.

Mike Figolah, Bartlett assistant fire chief, said Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts will lead the Pledge of Allegiance.

Torrillo said anyone who has an opportunity to see the Patriot Flag should take advantage.

"We have been waiting a long time for someone to rise to the occasion and inspire patriotism," Torrillo said. "We're in very trying times and we need the sense of unity we had at (9/11) as strong if not stronger right now."