Michelle McBride was driving to a doctor's appointment in downtown Columbia when she spotted the flags — hundreds at the time, soon to be more than 3,000.
Recognizing that it was a 9/11 tribute, she knew she needed to stop and help.
Chief Warrant Officer McBride has been in the Army for 18 years and has been deployed overseas twice, working with supplies in Kuwait and Iraq. "It was because of Sept. 11 that I came back on active duty," she said. "I felt very patriotic."
On Friday, Sept. 2, the 42-year-old Severn resident, currently stationed at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, stood on a long patch of grass at the Columbia mall alongside Little Patuxent Parkway, helping to plant some of the 3,300 flags, each about a foot high, as a tribute to the men and women who died in the terrorist attacks 10 years ago. Dozens of others joined the effort, organized by the mall and the Rotary Club of Columbia-Patuxent, including members of the club, Macy's employees and Howard County police officers, firefighters and paramedics.
Dan Merson, an assistant fire chief and bureau chief of the county's fire marshal office, said he has a son serving in the Army in Afghanistan.
"I don't have too much time, but I wanted to stop and participate," he said.
The final 343 flags, representing the number of firefighters and paramedics who died at the World Trade Center, were laid out by members of the police, fire and rescue departments. Before they began, a man played "Amazing Grace" on the bagpipes.
"I just wanted to pay tribute to all those people," said Howard County Police Lt. Lisa Myers. "We have a lot of people here who are also in the military. I think it shows respect to them as well."
One such military member was Dylan Murray, a master firefighter who has been in the Marine Corps Reserves since 1989.
"I remember watching the towers fall," Murray said. "One of my first thoughts was knowing how many people were in that building and wondering, 'How many firefighters and police officers did we just lose?'"
Murray said this tribute for the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks meant a lot to him, both as a firefighter and as a member of the military.
Melissa Ruiz, of Baltimore, a merchandiser at Macy's, said it was important to keep remembering the victims.
"It's always going to weigh on our hearts," she said. "As the years go on, it's never going to leave your mind."
The flags will remain at the mall until Sept. 12.
"The price of freedom is very high," said Nancy Smith, of Ellicott City, a Rotary Club member. "These people paid the ultimate price, and I wanted to come to honor that."