The Freedom Flag flies below the American Flag at a school in Delaware as part of its annual Sept. 11 observance.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Doug Ketcham was working as a bond trader for Cantor Fitzgerald in the North Tower of the World Trade Center when it was struck by hijacked American Airlines Flight 11.
The Chesterfield native contacted his mother, said there had been an explosion and reported his office was rapidly filling with acrid smoke. “I love you,” he said one last time before ending the call.
Ketcham, who had moved to New York City after graduating from the University of Virginia, was one of nearly 3,000 people killed in the terrorist attacks of 9/11. His remains were never identified.
Barely five months earlier, Ketcham had served as a groomsman at the wedding of one of his best friends, John Riley.
“It was the last time I ever saw him,” Riley recalled.
Riley and Ketcham grew up together in Chesterfield. Both attended Robious Middle School, then were nearly inseparable during their four years at Midlothian High School before graduating in 1992. They maintained a close friendship even after heading off to rival colleges, Riley studying at Virginia Tech and Ketcham at U.Va.
They were in their mid-20s on Sept. 11, 2001, and thought they still had their whole lives ahead of them.
Riley now is a father of four, a traffic engineer and president of the board of directors of the Freedom Flag Foundation, a local nonprofit formed in 2002 to advocate for establishing the Freedom Flag as a national symbol of remembrance of 9/11 to educate future generations about the tragic events and lives lost that day.
“It’s a calling,” Riley said of his nearly 14 years of voluntary service to the foundation. “Sometimes you find yourself in a spot in life where you just can’t not do something. I know this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”
The Freedom Flag Foundation was established by Richard Melito, a Henrico County restaurant owner, who drew an initial sketch of what is now known as the Freedom Flag on a napkin nine days after the terrorist attacks. Melito initially intended to hang the symbol on the wall of the restaurant to serve as a reminder to customers. It has since grown into something much more significant.
The Freedom Flag Foundation's board of directors with then-Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam on Sept. 11, 2018.
There’s special meaning behind every individual element that makes up the Freedom Flag:
*Thin, horizontal red stripes at the top and bottom of the flag represent the blood shed by those who perished at the Pentagon (Arlington, VA), crew and passengers on American Airlines Flight 77, and crew and passengers on United Airlines Flight 93.
*Three horizontal white stripes represent the first responders and rescue workers who descended on the World Trade Center and Pentagon during and after the attacks.
*Two broad, red horizontal stripes represent the twin towers and the blood shed by everyone who died at the World Trade Center, on American Airlines Flight 11 and on United Airlines Flight 175.
*The blue rectangular field represents all Americans united for freedom.
*The white star represents all who have lived and died to preserve freedom.
*The five white bars, aligned around the star, represent the Pentagon and the organized protection of our freedom.
“[The flag] is inclusive – it doesn’t leave anyone out,” said Chesterfield resident and Ret. Fire Lt. Clarence Singleton (FDNY), another member of the Freedom Flag Foundation board. “In these times I think that’s what we need, to be together.”
In 2003, then-Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (now a U.S. Senator) issued an executive order designating the Freedom Flag as the Commonwealth’s official symbol of remembrance of 9/11.
The flag’s status has been recognized as an official emblem of the Commonwealth under Virginia law in 2018, when bipartisan legislation sponsored by former state Sen. Glen Sturtevant and current Del. Lamont Bagby unanimously passed both chambers of the General Assembly and was signed by then-Gov. Ralph Northam.
“We like to call it proof of concept – if it worked in one state, it can work everywhere,” Riley said.
Through the “The National Freedom Flag and World Trade Center Steel Education Program,” students can touch a piece of steel from the fallen towers.
The Freedom Flag has been widely embraced across the nation by educators, first responders and the general public. Oklahoma lawmakers adopted it as their state’s official symbol of 9/11 remembrance on May 16, 2022, and a similar bill also has passed the Delaware legislature, where it awaits the governor’s signature.
While the foundation continues its efforts to have the Freedom Flag established as a national symbol, it also recognizes the need to engage and educate the current generation of American students who hadn’t been born on Sept. 11, 2001, and thus have no memories of that day.
In 2019, the Freedom Flag Foundation launched a pilot program in Virginia, Delaware and Texas called “The National Freedom Flag and World Trade Center Steel Education Program.” School partners receive a free kit containing a Freedom Flag and a small section of a steel beam from the twin towers that the foundation received from the buildings’ owner, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
Riley asked Tara Krohn, a fellow Midlothian High graduate and Cub Scout leader, if she’d be willing to take one of the kits and kick off the program at Woolridge Elementary, where she has taught for 24 years. On Sept. 11, 2019, Krohn took a piece of World Trade Center steel around to different classrooms and told students the story of 9/11.
Krohn joined the Freedom Flag Foundation board in 2020. That led to her writing “Unfurling the Freedom Flag: A 9/11 Story,” a children’s book that chronicles the flag’s origin. The book was illustrated by Emily Merry, a Midlothian High School graduate and Krohn’s next-door neighbor.
“My favorite moments as a teacher are being in front of the class, making a book come alive,” Krohn said. “Not only does this book make the 9/11 story come alive, but the flag’s story as well. It’s a safe way to tell the story in a way that’s appropriate for school-age children.”
Raising the Freedom Flag below the U.S. Flag, reciting the meaning of its 10 elements, and holding a moment of silence has become part of the traditional Patriot Day observance in schools across Virginia. The Freedom Flag Project also calls for schools to formalize an annual tradition of raising and flying the Freedom Flag below the American Flag on Sept. 11, creating a unique reminder to current and future generations of the victims, heroes, and survivors of that day.
“I think we have to keep the story in circulation or we’re one generation away from forgetting it,” Krohn added. “I feel like this is my mission and my calling now.”
Likewise, Singleton joined the Freedom Flag Foundation board as one way to honor the first responders and civilians who were killed on 9/11.
Singleton, a retired New York City firefighter, rushed to the World Trade Center after hearing a news report about a plane hitting the north tower. The south tower had already collapsed by the time he made it down to Ground Zero, where he and other emergency personnel assisted victims and tried to put out multiple fires.
Singleton was injured trying to flee the area when the north tower fell, suffering a dislocated shoulder after being knocked off his feet by a tremendous rush of wind, but he somehow managed to escape with his life.
More than 400 first responders – including 343 firefighters -- were not so fortunate.
“I don’t believe we truly die until we stop being remembered,” Singleton said. “I’m hoping we never forget … it’s important that we keep their memory alive.”
Teacher Tara Krohn reads her book, “Unfurling the Freedom Flag: A 9/11 Story,” to students at Woolridge Elementary School.