It’s called the National 9/11 Flag, but as Denny and Carolyn Deters will attest, the tattered flag that survived the World Trade Center explosions is recognized today as a symbol of our nation’s resilience and compassionate response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“What we say at the foundation is that we’re not about 9/11, we’re about 9/12,” Carolyn said. “We’re really about the compassion the rest of the country showed to New York after 9/11.”
Through their involvement with the New York Says Thank You Foundation, the Glenwood couple has played an integral role in the unique restoration and cross-country tour of the National 9/11 Flag. As the foundation’s flag tour events manager, Carolyn spent the past three years helping schedule and coordinate the flag’s appearances at venues across the nation. Because of lifelong ties with the Boy Scouts of America, Denny was asked to oversee protocol and the proper handling of the flag during the restoration and touring process.
“This year on Sept. 11, we’re taking the flag to Los Angeles for a baseball game at Dodger Stadium to honor the 9/11 victims from New York,” Carolyn said.
The torn, 20-by-30 foot flag remained hanging from a building across the street from the World Trade Center for about a month after the Sept. 11 attacks. Charlie Vitchers, a construction superintendent for the clean-up effort at Ground Zero, eventually saw to it that the tattered flag was properly removed and placed in storage.
In September 2008, the seventh anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Vitchers took the flag out of storage and brought it to the tornado-ravaged town of Greensburg, Kan. Hundreds of New York Says Thank You volunteers, including NYC firefighters and relatives of 9/11 victims, came to the small Kansas town to help the community rebuild and to provide emotional support. As part of the special weekend, Greensburg residents joined disaster survivors from across the nation in stitching some of the flag back together with remains of flags recovered from the Greensburg tornado.
Each year, around the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, volunteers from the New York Says Thank You Foundation, come together to help rebuild a community that has experienced a catastrophic disaster. It’s the quintessential act of paying it forward – one American helping another get through the recovery process. This year, the volunteers converged on New York to help rebuild the homes of first-responders destroyed during Hurricane Sandy.
In September 2009, foundation volunteers came to the Little Sioux Scout Ranch in western Iowa that had been destroyed in a June 2008 tornado. The storm claimed the lives of four scouts. Denny, who was serving as the reservation manager at the Little Sioux camp, was touched by the team of New York City firefighters and volunteers that built a chapel as a tribute to the four scouts who lost their lives in the tornado. The National 9/11 Flag accompanied the volunteers to the scout camp.
After seeing first-hand what the New York Says Thank You Foundation is all about, Denny and Carolyn joined the cause. They became friends with the foundation’s founder and chairman, Jeff Parness. A year later, they were agreeing to coordinate the foundation’s tour of the National 9/11 Flag. The tour would include stitching ceremonies in all 50 states before Sept. 11, 2011, the 10th anniversary of the attacks.
“What I needed to do was get venues in all of the different states to do these programs,” Carolyn said. “The whole program was set up around the idea that we would have the general public nominate local heroes to put the first ceremonial stitches in the flag, and then the stitching would be opened to the general public after a ceremony.
“The flag had already been in seven states prior to 2011, but from the beginning of January 2011 to the 10th anniversary of 9/11, we did 43 states.”
The flag visited communities that had been crippled by a disaster, but also the rotundas of several state capitals and other well-known public venues.
On Dec. 7, 2010, the flag was in Honolulu, Hawaii, where survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack added stitches to the flag while aboard the USS Missouri. The flag was taken to Columbine High School in Colorado, the Oklahoma City National Memorial, Fort Hood, Texas, and Tucson, Ariz. – communities that had experienced horrific tragedies.
“What we found when we were doing these is that it’s a real healing process for the people because they could relate to the fact that the flag was something to tie people together after a disaster,” Carolyn said. “The affect the flag had on people was just amazing.”
Other stops on the flag tour included the Kennedy Space Center, the Pentagon, Mount Rushmore and Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby Day. In Iowa, the flag-stitching ceremony took place in Eagle Grove, the hometown of Aaron Eilerts, one of the scouts killed in the Little Sioux tornado.
Denny and Carolyn said it’s the people they’ve met, not the places they’ve visited, that’s left a lasting impression. There were tears, hugs and smiles throughout the tour.
“We met some wonderful people who had some amazing stories to tell,” Carolyn said. “There was a gentleman in Arkansas, a Vietnam veteran, whose son had been killed in Iraq. He brought his son’s medals and placed them on the flag as he stitched. I still get choked up thinking about it.”
Denny remembers meeting a man who was a close friend to one of the airline pilots killed on 9/11 and an elderly couple in St. Louis that had lost a son in one of the World Trade Center towers.
“The husband and wife said they just wanted to look at the flag,” Denny said. “This was first time they had ever seen anything from New York related to the disaster. They were reluctant to do any stitching. Finally, as we were folding the flag, she came up and took some stitches.”
The flag made its way to stitching ceremonies in all 50 states in time for the 10th anniversary of 9/11. The last formal ceremony took place in New York on Sept. 5, 2011.
On Sept. 11, 2011, the flag was in Joplin, Mo., providing hope for a community literally torn apart four months earlier by a massive EF5 tornado.
“There was a big ceremony in Joplin,” Denny said. “We didn’t want to take it to New York for the 10th anniversary. There was just too much chaos going on in New York and the memorial area just couldn’t handle this.”
At each stop across the country, New York firefighters served as honor guards and special precautions were taken to protect the flag.
“They (firefighters) were very instrumental in making the ceremonies happen because they had to accompany it wherever it went. The flag never went unattended,” Carolyn said. “When we do a flag ceremony, we always make sure we have fire extinguishers nearby. As the flag got more publicity, we got a little bit concerned about the potential of some crazy person coming and trying to burn it up.”
Each of the patches sewn on the National 9/11 Flag were made from damaged and retired flags.
“We made sure that any of the patches that we made from American flags were no longer fit to fly,” Denny said. “There was no desecration of any flag. We actually had to refuse some flags because they were still flyable.”
Denny pointed out the National 9/11 Flag has two very special patches – one containing threads from the original star-spangled banner that had flown over Ft. McHenry and one from a flag that was held under President Abraham Lincoln’s head after he was shot.
The restoration is now nearly complete, but the flag will continue to make appearances at special events across the country until it’s placed in its permanent home at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, currently being built at the World Trade Center site.
Denny and Carolyn both plan on staying involved with the New York Says Thank You Foundation, even after the flag is placed in the museum.
Denny, retired from Union Pacific Railroad where he worked in sales and marketing, is giving serious consideration to writing a book about the special people he’s met during his work with New York Says Thank You. Carolyn was a genetic cancer research nurse at the Creighton University Medical School before taking on duties with the foundation.
“We both wear several hats with the foundation,” Carolyn said. “We may cut back, but I don’t see either of us walking away from the foundation. We’ve had the opportunity to work with so many wonderful people - it’s been very rewarding for both of us.”