Lawmakers, 9/11 family members and volunteers from around the country gathered on Capitol Hill Thursday to help stitch together what's become known at the National 9/11 Flag, which hung over the rubble of ground zero in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
"Although we might not always agree on everything, when it comes to 9/11, we are unified," said David Payne, the president of service group MyGoodDeed, which cosponsored the event. "9/11 is a day that will forever bring us together as people, despite the efforts of others who hoped to tear us apart."
The 30-foot flag was hung above ground zero in the days immediately after the 9/11 attacks, and was meant to be a symbol of hope and appreciation to the police, firefighters and volunteers searching through the rubble each day.
But the white stripes of the flag soon turned gray, due to the lingering smoke in the area, and the flag started to shred as it whipped against the damaged remains of the building from which it hung. The flag was removed in late October 2001 to prevent any further damage and was stored in a plastic bag in Pennsylvania.
But the flag was brought to Greensburg, KS seven years later, after a tornado destroyed much of the Kansas town. Several women from a senior center in Greensburg began patching up the tattered flag, using pieces of flags that had survived the Kansas tornado.
"They literally stitched together our histories," said Jeff Parness, who heads the New York Says Thank You Foundation, a nonprofit founded after 9/11 that has spearheaded the restoration of the National 9/11 Flag. "Destroyed in the aftermath of 9/11 in New York, being brought back to life, seven years later, by tornado survivors in a small town in Kansas - that's what America's all about."
The flag is in the middle of a 50-state tour, where survivors of Hurricane Katrina, the Columbine and Fort Hood shootings, and the shootings in Tuscon, Arizona have all contributed stitches. It was flown at the funeral of nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green, who was born on September 11th, 2001 and killed in the Tuscon shootings last year. The flag even contains a small piece of the flag that was laid over Abraham Lincoln after he was assassinated.
Several lawmakers came to place their own stitches in the flag as it lay spread out in a Senate building. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who flew to ground zero the day after the attacks, spoke of overcoming the "vicious meaninglessness" of the attacks.
"To take that evil and that darkness, and turn it into light, is one of the greatest things anyone can do," he said, before threading a needle. "And that's what these people have done."
"Our national anthem is a beautiful song, but today it has special meaning because it's all about the flag," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, quoting a specific line: "Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there."
"It's a remarkable tribute to this flag," she said, "this flag is a remarkable symbol of our country, a wonderful way for us to strive to come together to convey that not only will we never forget, but it will always be a priority in our thinking."
Organizers of the event have also launched a campaign to make the upcoming 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks the largest day of service in America's history. September 11th was recently designated by Congress as a national day of service and remembrance.
"We have millions of people all over the world participating," said Jay Winuk, who cofounded MyGoodDeed after his brother Glen was killed at ground zero, "to remember and honor those who perished by participating in service, and helping to make lives better in their communities or anywhere else in the country.
"The spirit of 9/11 was not what the terrorists wanted it to be, but what we have made it," said Rep. Peter King (R-NY) at the ceremony. "And that's a day of sacrifice, a day of remembrance, and a day of moving our country forward. We can never allow the terrorists to defeat us in mind and spirit - we have to keep going forward, and that's what this is all about."
Several New Yorkers who lost family members in the 9/11 attacks came to participate in the stitching ceremony.
"It was very emotional for me, and I didn't think it would be," said Cindy McGinty, whose husband Mike worked in the World Trade Center and was killed in the attack. McGinty became involved with MyGoodDeed after a local landscaper, soon after 9/11, offered to help her keep up the gardening that her husband had done at their home. "I would ask everybody in America to try to think about 9/11 as being a national day, and try to pay tribute to someone who lost their life by doing something on September 11th."
The flag will be transported to several other cities this year, and organizers hope it will be repaired in time for the 10th anniversary of the attacks in September, where it will become part of the planned 9/11 memorial at ground zero.