Menlo Park firefighters from Station 2 returned from a call on Sunday - the 15th anniversary of Sept. 11 - to find that 343 flags honoring their fallen brothers and sisters in New York had been torched.
The flags represent the number of firefighters lost at the World Trade Center in 2001. And many Menlo Park Fire District firefighters flew to New York that year to help with the aftermath of the tragedy.
“I don’t get angry easily," fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman said in a statement. "But knowing that someone tried to burn not only our flag memorial, but a specific tribute to 343 heroic fallen brothers, some of whom I personally knew, worked with and helped to look for at Ground Zero, and that this occurred here on the actual 15th anniversary date of this event, it’s a despicable act of disrespect and cowardice; its truly hard for me to comprehend, accept and I need to stop myself there because I don’t want you to know what I’m thinking right now.”
The damage was contained to about six flags, according to Battalion Chief Ben Marra. The vandalism likely occurred around 1 p.m., Schapelhouman said.
"Fortunately it's minor," Marra said. But "given the density of the flags on the pallet, it could have been much worse."
Marra said the crew took pictures of the damage and turned the photos over to East Palo Alto police. Police descibed the suspect as a man in his 20s, with collar-length, bushy hair, wearing a horizontal striped shirt and having a distinctive walk.
Police also had surveillance video from the scene, showing the suspect setting the fire.
"Stopping at the corner, waiting for traffic to leave, and then squatting down and setting the flags on fire," East Palo Alto police Cmdr. Jeff Liu said, describing what the footage shows.
Police plan to release the surveillance video Wednesday.
In Hollister on Sunday, police received a report of a man with a knife slashing American flags along a main city street. The flags had been placed by a Boy Scout troop.
Hollister police located the man on San Benito Street and cited him for vandalism. At least three flags were detroyed.
In Southern California, a 9/11 tribute was also trashed. Nearly 3,000 miniature American flgas were removed from the grass at Occidental College in Eagle Rock, California, broken and thrown in the trash.
NBC Bay Area's Peggy Bunker contributed to this report.