Ground Zero flag comes to Baltimore for officer's funeral

In the busy terminal of BWI airport, things stood still for a moment.

The passengers waiting for flights at gate C-7 looked up as police officers in white gloves lined up in two rows and a somber family huddled together, looking out the windows toward the tarmac.

As American Airlines Flight 1678 pulled up to the gate, it was showered by two blasts of water from airport fire trucks. The family then moved to the door, where Captain Jon Vise carried out a black suitcase.

Inside was an American flag that has traversed the country for the funerals of dozens of fallen military service members, police officers and firefighters. On Wednesday, it will be part of the services for Officer Tommy Portz Jr., a 10-year police department veteran who was killed when his patrol cruiser crashed into the back of a parked fire truck in West Baltimore.

Portz is the first officer to be killed in the line of duty since 2007, and the third city officer killed in less than a month.

The flag flew over the World Trade Center site during recovery efforts after Sept. 11, 2001. Tammy Heisler, the executive director of the Honor Network, which organizes the flag's transportation, said that after leaving New York, the flag went with her husband when he was deployed to Iraq, though she can't recall what sparked its role in law enforcement funerals.

Regardless, its significance has grown with each service. It now has a microchip embedded in its fabric to authenticate it, and Heisler's small nonprofit group coordinates with local public safety agencies to orchestrate its delivery from city to city.

"Tommy was from New York, so it has a lot of meaning to them in that regard," said Sgt. Kevin Hagan. "For the department as a whole, it serves as a tribute to know there's people out there that are appreciative of what we do every day and want to honor us when we do sacrifice our lives in the line of duty."

Hagan played club ice hockey with Portz on a team of city police officers that included Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III. He said Portz was a "big teddy bear" who was passionate about police work and showed the ropes to younger officers in the Western District.

"We've grown so tight," Hagan said of the officers who play hockey. "It's very hard to lose a friend like Tommy."

Portz's wife and three young children did not appear at BWI, and the relatives who were present -- his mother, father, sisters and a nephew -- did not speak with the media.

Those relatives walked with Bealefeld and a police honor guard of city and transportation authority officers into the airport and past the security gate.

As the plane arrived under a windy mist of water from the fire trucks, the officers placed hats on their head or strapped on helmets, and stood at attention.

The terminal fell silent as passengers instinctively began snapping pictures on their cell phones. Some asked what was taking place, others seemed to understand that whatever it was, it was worth stopping to observe.

Vise, the plane captain, handed the flag to Portz's mother, who placed a white-gloved hand on it for a few moments. It was then handed to Hagan, who carried it out of the airport, with the family and honor guard in tow. A procession transported it to the Ruck Funeral Home in Towson to lie in repose with Portz.

The funeral will take place Wednesday at The Cathedral of Mary Our Queen.

Lt. Sanford Witcher of the Maryland Transportation Authority Police was in charge of scanning the flag to authenticate it.

"It's what it represents that really gets to you. People realize there's something special happening," Witcher said. "Hopefully, one hundred years from now the flag will still be doing that."

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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