The American flag can bring crowds to their feet, make grown men cry, and others salute. It is the ultimate symbol of sacrifice in our country. But one modern flag's journey is particularly poignant and provides a living testament to the resilience and compassion of the American people.
The National 911 Flag - often called the "modern day version of the Star-Spangled Banner" was flying proudly on September 11, 2001 on 90 West Street in Lower Manhattan when the terror attacks hit. The flag was tattered and torn and eventually taken down by Charlie Vitchers, the construction superintendent at Ground Zero. For seven years, the flag sat in a closet until the volunteer group, New York Says Thank You, brought it to Greensburg, Kansas. New York Says Thank You is a foundation that rebuilds each year on the week of September 11 in areas hit by disaster as a way to "pay it forward" and honor the 911 victims and families. Greensburg had just been devastated by an F5 tornado and volunteer group was helping rebuild the town. However, it was another group of volunteers who began the flag's journey. Women from an assisted living facility volunteered their time and carefully stitched the flag back together. Their act of kindness forever changed history.
And that's where the flag's journey began. The "threads" of kindness created the National 911 Flag which has now been experience by millions of Americans through national and local TV coverage, public displays in small town gatherings, and major cultural and sporting events. The flag has been stitched by members of Congress, by veterans on the deck of the USS Missouri in Pearl Harbor, by the family of Martin Luther King Jr, at Ford Hood, and at the funeral of Christina Taylor Green. Christina was born on September 11, 2001 and killed in the Tucson shooting which also wounded Congresswoman Gabby Giffords. In less than one year, the flag traveled to 43 states.
As Carolyn and Denny Deters, from the New York Says Thank You Foundation and who traveled with the flag for most of the journeys said, "It was a labor of love and now it's back home."
The flag was brought "home" just a few hundred feet from where she last flew in October 2001 as part of a permanent display on May 21, 2015. As Charlie Vitchers noted, "When you look at this site, it is a sign of the resilience of the American people. This flag will forever symbolize that resilience for generations to come."
"The National 911 Flag is the sum of many parts," added Jan Seidler Ramirez, the Chief Curator at the National September 11 Memorial Museum. "Its metamorphosis from a symbol of nationhood at Ground Zero - ravaged by the harsh conditions of its service - into a larger icon of healing, hope and human kindness, is an inspirational journey that summarizes what people can do collaboratively in response to an immense tragedy."
For parents, students and teachers who will visit the National September 11 Memorial Museum in the years to come, it is important to look closely at the flag because each patch and every thread tells a story. Some of the most historic: On President Lincoln's Birthday, a piece of the flag that Abraham Lincoln was laid on when he was shot at Ford's Theater was stitched into the fabric of The National 9/11 Flag. On September 11, 2011, patches were sewn into The National 9/11 Flag by more than 1,000 tornado survivors in Joplin, Missouri. And on June 14, 2012 - Flag Day - threads from the original Star-Spangled Banner flag that flew at Fort McHenry in the War of 1812 and inspired Francis Scott Key to write the National Anthem - were stitched into The National 9/11 Flag. Every state has a patch and every thread has a story.
As the founder of the New York Says Thank You Foundation Jeff Parness said at the final ceremony, "The goal of the National 911 Flag has always remained the same: To empower local service heroes in all 50 states with the privilege of stitching the flag back to its original 13-stripe format and to inspire all American's that love is stronger than hate."
While the flag is loved and endeared by many around the nation, there are two families who feel a special bond with the flag. Maria Isabel Ramirez and George Ferguson were the only two employees killed at 90 West Street - the building across the street from the Twin Towers where the flag was discovered. They were trapped in the elevators when the buildings came down but they were not officially recognized as 911 victims because they didn't work in the towers. Both families struggled with this concept for the past fourteen years. Their long journey ended on May 21, 2015 when both Maria and George were recognized as heroes at the National 911 Flag's Official installation ceremony. George's wife Mary and Maria's mother, Elsie Cintron-Rosado both attended the ceremony and gave an emotional speech to the audience.
"There were times I was angry and so sad but every time I saw this flag, it put more life into me. It gave me hope. It was the light that I felt through the darkness," said Elsie.
The National 911 Flag's rich visual history is now on permanent display and will be seen by millions each year. As Charlie Vitcher's said, "This flag taught me that life does go on after tragedy. I hope the flag will bring people hope, deepen our national pride and bolster the spirit of volunteerism."
As part of the official installation ceremony of the National 911 Flag, the first annual Ramirez-Ferguson Awards were presented to numerous individuals and corporations who made the journey possible. Some of the companies who helped: KPMG LLP and KPMG Foundation, Edelman SF Foundation, ABNY Foundation, Mutual of America, Jonathan M. Tisch, NUCOR, 5LINX, Dentons US LLP, Charles A Barragato & Company, friends of David Brady, the FDNY, NYPD, Slidell, Louisiana firefighters, Utica firefighters, Hirair and Anna Hovnanian Foundation, National School Boards Association and White House Foods. In fact, the youngest person to place a stitch was a 2-week old baby who stitched in Winchester, Virginia because of a ceremony sponsored by White House foods. It should also be noted that many of KPMG's 26,000 employees volunteered in ceremonies around the country in the National 911 Flag's historic journey.
About the author:
My name is Mia Toschi and I had the privilege of working with the New York Says Thank You Foundation as the National Director of its' educational division, The 9/12 Generation Project. I was proud to be part of many of the ceremonies towards the end of the flag's journey. On one occasion, I was responsible for transporting the flag from a ceremony at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire back to New York City. I drove through a blinding rainstorm for nearly two hours alone and I was so worried that I might have an accident or might have to pull into a hotel. The flag weighs 60 pounds when folded and the weather was too severe to even consider bringing the flag outside or seeking shelter and leaving the flag alone. I was actually very afraid because even though the flag had no monetary value, I had seen firsthand what this flag meant to so many people around the world. My memories kept me company for that long journey home and I thought of all the people I had met. I remember meeting a 90-year old World War II veteran who stood at attention and saluted the flag. He never moved for five minutes. At another event, hundreds of teenagers who lost their homes to Hurricane Sandy stood in line for nearly one hour to touch the flag. They were too young to remember September 11 but they knew they were in the presence of something very special. I thought of all the first responders who cried when they saw the flag. And I thought of Elsie, who now sheds tears of happiness in the flag's presence. I was never so happy to bring the flag back home and to be part of the Opening and Installation Ceremonies at the National 911Memorial Museum. I will forever have gratitude to the New York Says Thank You team for making me part of the journey. The National 911 flag is for the 2,983 people who lost their lives on September 11. It is a national treasure and I hope all the young students, veterans, parents and teachers who visit the National 911 Memorial Museum in Lower Manhattan will be transformed as much as I have been.
Mia Toschi now serves as the National Director of the American Public Education Foundation which merged with the 9/12 Generation Project, a service-learning project that teaches students the core values of citizenship, compassion, kindness, diversity and overcoming tragedy through hope.