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In the days after the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, an American flag appeared on the side of a construction site overlooking Ground Zero in downtown Manhattan. A construction crew hung the 30-foot flag on 90 West Street as a symbol of hope for volunteers searching for survivors in the wreckage of the World Trade Center.
However, the flag soon had the opposite effect. It kept getting caught on scaffolding broken by the collapse of the South Tower. Seeing an American flag ripped to shreds upset some of the workers below.
"It became an issue with some of the construction workers after a couple of weeks because the deterioration it was suffering by blowing in the wind against some collapsed scaffolding," says Charles Vitchers, a construction manager who was assessing the safety of buildings damaged by the collapse of the Twin Towers.
So, Vitchers had one of his crews take the flag down in October 2001. "It was shredded pretty good," he says.
The crew folded the flag and put it in a plastic bag. Vitchers put it in a shed outside a country home he owns in Pennsylvania, where it stayed until he took it out 7 years later. He laid it out on his lawn, and tried to put it back together like a puzzle, but couldn't.
Parts of both the stars and stripes were missing. The rest was in 13 pieces. The white stripes were gray with dust. The flag still smelled like smoke.
"When I took the flag out of the bag that it had been in," says Vitchers, "it brought back all of the smells that were prominent down here at Ground Zero."
Vitchers was going to have the flag honorably retired, until another disaster struck: a tornado wiped out most of Greensburg, Kan., in May 2007. In 2008, Vitchers traveled to Kansas with "New York Says Thank You," a group of New Yorkers touched by 9/11 who now travel the country helping other disaster victims. He brought the flag with him, and that's where The National 9/11 Flag started its journey back to life.
"We're letting local service heroes and communities around the country stitch it back together," says Jeff Parness, founder of New York Says Thank You Foundation and The National 911 Flag Oragnization.
It started when a group of women in Greensburg, Kan., saved flags that survived their town's tornado, and used them to patch the Ground Zero flag together, like a good old-fashioned quilting bee.
Now the flag is traveling cross-country, scheduled to hit all 50 states by the 10th anniversary of the terror attacks.
"There are so many things we will never be able to make whole again," says Parness, "but this we can make whole."
This Fourth of July, the flag will hit its 35th state, when it visits a church in North Carolina. In the past three years, the stars and stripes have started looking less like a patchwork quilt and more like its original, 13 striped self.
The flags that were originally used as patches have been replaced with matching pieces of red, white and blue taken from other retired flags.When it is complete, it will contain parts of flags from all 50 states.
"It is truly the fabric of America," says Parness.
One person at a time, makes one stitch at a time, as the flag crisscrosses the country. It has been on aircraft carriers and on the fields of ballparks. It has brought hope to other towns touched by tragedy, like Pearl Harbor, Hawaii; Fort Hood, Texas, and Oklahoma City, Okla.
"When we're all done, we're going to have somewhere between 20,000, maybe 30,000, stitches," says Parness.
Veterans and other local heroes are nominated to take up the needle and thread first in special ceremonies. But anyone can line up to take a turn. Each zigzagged stitch made on the flag is as individual as the people who make them.
Kathryn Cross left more than a stitch.
"I apologized to them because my tears are on the flag." The Connecticut mother cried as she made her stitch in honor of her son, Tyler Connely, who was known as "Corky Joe." The Navy law enforcement officer was killed on duty in a car crash in Iceland, just a few months after Sept. 11, 2001. "I realized the sacrifice of, truly not only of my son, but all of the others that we've lost in service to our country," Cross said.
The flag still needs to visit 15 more states, plus Washington, D.C., before the 10th anniversary of the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2011. Once fully restored, the flag will hang in the National 9/11 Memorial Museum that is currently under construction at Ground Zero.
"I don't know of anything else that represents all the best values of people coming together in the country as this flag does," says Parness. "Every time you hear 'The Star-Spangled Banner' ... 'the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air gave proof through the night that our flag was still there'? It's still here. And to me, it's getting more beautiful every day."