Verona flagmaking company repairs National 9/11 Flag
 

Wednesday, February 09, 2011, 8:45 AM - By Mark Di Ionno/Star-Ledger Columnist

VERONA — In the empty, battleship-gray basement of the Annin Flagmakers factory in Verona, a tattered American flag is stretched out over a dozen banquet tables — the remains of a giant, stubborn banner that held its ground on Sept. 11, 2001.

     

Over the next few months, four New Jersey seamstresses will use their eight skilled hands and 40 nimble fingers to repair its scars.The banner is the National 9/11 Flag, now a patchwork quilt of American grief and resilience. Sown to its body are flags from places where other tragedies have struck. The Annin seamstresses will blend those in, making the flag whole again.

On the morning of 9/11, the flag was draped from construction scaffolding a block south of WTC. The explosion of debris from the south tower collapse caused the scaffolding to fall in a skeletal heap.

The flag ended up not buried but, somehow, flying from twisted metal poles. It was shredded and burned, but in an image that evokes the words of Francis Scott Key, it flew over the wreckage for a month, first a symbol of hope for rescue workers and then endurance for clean-up crews.

 
Lien Hao Hsien, Franca Tanelli and Incoronata DiIorio -- workers at Anin Flagmakers in Verona -- stitch a repair on the national 9/11 Flag. The 30 foot flag flew from a building across from the World Trade Center and was severely damaged in the 9/11 attack. (John O'Boyle/The Star-Ledger)
     

"Symbol" is a word familiar to those at Annin.

"We don’t sell flags. We sell patriotism," said Robert Caggiano, a sales manager at the nation’s largest flagmaker.

Now, they are repairing a historic artifact.

The seamstresses are Annin’s most experienced. All are immigrants, and the Stars and Stripes is a symbol of the better lives they’ve found here.

"If you’re Italian, and you’re from Essex County, you probably had a relative who worked at Annin," said Caggiano. "I did. This is part of the company legacy. It’s given a lot of people a leg up in this county."

"This is my flag now," said Franca Tanelli, who came from Italy with a skill that got her work right away in America.

For that reason, the National 9/11 Flag resonates with her like no other.

"Every day here, all we see is flag, flag, flag. But this one is the most important ever. This is very special. It means something to people all over America, and us, too," she said, stitching the 9/11 flag. Tanelli has been at Annin for 34 years. Her sister-in-law, Incoronata DiIorio, has been there for 37. The women worked side by side, murmuring in Italian now and then. It was the only sound in the room at times. The third seamstress, Lien Hao Hsien of Taiwan, an Annin seamstress for 26 years, didn’t make a sound as she made tight, tiny loops with a thick polyester thread called Old Glory Blue, or Old Glory Red, the two most common colors used at Annin.

"We have to use heavy thread," said Ahillia Harnandan, the sewing supervisor, who is from Guyana. "It has to be strong." The flag is the property of the New York Says Thank You Foundation, started by Jeff Parness as a way to repay goodwill shown to the city after 9/11. "We use the 9/11 anniversary as barn-raisings for communities that have been hard-hit," Parness said. "Many of our first volunteers were people whose lives were impacted by 9/11. Now, more than half are
people from communities where we’ve gone to help."

The first was Greenburg, Kan., wiped out by a tornado in 2007. When the foundation arranged help, the people of Greenburg asked for material from 9/11 to put into their own memorial, to symbolically link the tragedies and spirit of revival.

Charlie Vitchers, a foreman during the 9/11 cleanup, told Parness about the flag.

"He told me it was in bad shape, and I said, ‘Why don’t we just bring it back to life,’ " Parness said.

It went to Kansas, where quilters patched it with flags that survived the tornado. Then to an Iowa campground, where four Eagle Scouts died in a storm. It went to Pearl Harbor, where a USS Missouri flag was incorporated to link America’s first day of infamy with its second.

It was unfurled at the funeral for the little girl killed the day Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot. Christina Taylor-Green was born on Sept. 11, 2001. Her life bookended two national tragedies; the flag is now a historic artifact of both.

Next week, it will go to Shanksville, Pa., where Flight 93 passengers averted a third 9/11 terror strike by rushing the hijackers. The last flag at the clean-up site will be incorporated into the big flag, as will threads from Star-Spangled bunting stained with Abraham Lincoln’s blood. The bunting was hanging at Ford Theater the night Lincoln was shot, and is now property of the Pike County (Pa.) Historic Society.

In this way, the National 9/11 Flag is a road map of indelible spirit. Every star and every stripe has story: a story that says our flag was still there.

With their skilled fingers, the Annin seamstresses will remake the original. They will remove quilted pieces, but take remnants and match them to the flag field. It will not be seamless, but the scars with be stitched over. All those pieces of flag, from all those American places, will be re-incorporated so that flag will be whole again, like was at sunrise on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

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