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Honor Flag in Anchorage for Fallen AFD Senior Captain

By Abby Hancock, Reporter (Social Issues, Youth Issues, and 2 Your Health), ahancock@ktuu.com
Published On: Mar 13 2014 09:27:22 PM AKDT
Updated On: Mar 13 2014 09:29:29 PM AKDT

By Reporter Abby Hancock and Photojournalist Shawn Wilson.  (KTUU-TV)

ANCHORAGE -

The U.S. Honor Flag arrived in Anchorage on Thursday for the Saturday funeral service of Anchorage Fire Department Senior Capt. Jeff Bayless, following his collapse during a Friday training exercise.

The flag has traveled millions of miles and has been present at numerous services for fallen fire, police and military members. The flag was handed off to the Anchorage Firefighters Honor Guard, which carried it through a path created by dozens of officers in uniform.

It is a highly revered piece of American fabric, the presence of which Cynthia Starnes -- Bayless's sister -- calls humbling. She says her brother was very patriotic and dedicated to the fire department, where he served for 19 years.

"It has been very emotional for all of us because we know the significance of this flag, we know what it means and we know what it meant to Jeff," Starnes said.

An AFD procession took the flag from the airport to a Downtown funeral home so the flag could sit next to Bayless's casket until Saturday.

Since 2001, the U.S. Honor Flag has been a symbol of service, sacrifice and patriotism. It flew over Ground Zero right after the 9/11 attacks. But the idea to honor the fallen began a few months before Sept. 11, 2001, with the death of APD Officer Justin Wollam.

"Because of that tragedy in Alaska, it has really become now an inspiration to millions and millions of folks all over the country," said Honor Flag founder Chris Heisler.

When Wollam died in a collision with a drunk driver in July 2001, the police department contacted Heisler. He grew up in Anchorage but was living near Wollam's hometown in Texas. Heisler helped coordinate with the local police department and APD to create a replica of Wollam's patrol car for the funeral.

"9/11 happened a few months later and individuals contacted Chris saying, 'What you did for young Justin Wollam, we'd like you to honor the firefighters and police officers at the World Trade Center,'" said APD Lt. Garry Gilliam.

Heisler organized a large motorcade and drove the vehicle created for Wollam from Texas to New York City.

"In the vehicle was an American flag and a Texas flag that was gifted to me and we took it to New York," Heisler said.

After 9/11, that same American flag was present at numerous memorials for fallen police officers and firefighters. It started to gain a reputation.

It soon became the U.S. Honor Flag, which is now treated like a head of state, he said. It has microchips in its seam and 24-hour police protection. For Heisler, who said he never intended for the Honor Flag to become so well-known, it is moving.

"I have not become a second or an ounce desensitized to what the flag really truly means," Heisler said. "It represents that spirit of patriotism that every single American felt after 9/11."