9/11 Flag Gives Anniversary Special Meaning for FEMA Worker

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Release date: 
September 9, 2011
Release Number: 
4022-010

BURLINGTON, Vt. -- On the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorists attacks, workers at the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Joint Field Office will take a brief moment from their work helping Vermont recover from Tropical Storm Irene to commemorate the occasion.

For some, it will be an especially meaningful day.

Far from home, some will mark the anniversary of the worst manmade disaster to hit the United States by remembering their own work at Ground Zero in Manhattan.

Others will reflect on disasters where they have helped their fellow Americans recover.

And Laura Stoltenberg, an administrative assistant to the head of FEMA's recovery operations here in Vermont, will think of both the responders in New York City and those who came to her former hometown, Greensburg, Kansas, after it was destroyed by a tornado in May 2007.

The EF-5 tornado tore through the small Kansas farm town, demolishing 95 percent of the structures and leaving 11 dead in its wake -- including Stoltenberg's 78-year-old mother, Colleen Mae Panzer.

"My town was gone. My mom was gone. I was in shock," Stoltenberg remembers. She went to work for FEMA during the recovery effort, and was moved by the outpouring of support from people from all over the nation who came to help.

The next year, on September 11, 2008, Charlie Vitchers, a former construction superintendent who worked on the cleanup of Ground Zero, came with a team of volunteers from New York City to Greensburg to help with the rebuilding efforts there.

The volunteers -- members of the New York Says Thank You Foundation, a group dedicated to repaying the kindness shown by the nation to that city in the wake of 9/11 -- also brought with them a very special flag.

"It was a huge tattered, torn flag that had flown on a building across the street from Ground Zero," Stoltenberg recalls. "It hung there for weeks after the attacks."

Vitchers had the flag taken down and placed in storage where it sat untouched. But seven years later, inspired by images of the tattered flags flying over Greensburg, he brought it with him to the small Kansas town where he and volunteers from all over the country were helping to rebuild.

As they worked, other volunteers began the process of stitching that shredded Ground Zero banner back together using the remnants of flags salvaged from the wreckage of Greensburg.

The 30-foot flag would go on to become the National 9/11 Flag. Since then, it has traveled through all 50 states and thousands of Americans have added a stitch to the flag. Stitches have been added by soldiers and schoolchildren who survived the shootings at Fort Hood, Texas, by World War II veterans on the deck of the USS Missouri in Pearl Harbor, and by the family of Martin Luther King Jr. A piece of the flag that Abraham Lincoln was laid on when he was shot at Ford's Theater has also been sewn into it.

"It really is stirring to think of the history that has been sewn into this flag," Stoltenberg says.

So when the flag came to the Middlebury Veterans of Foreign Wars post 7823 in late August, she immediately organized a delegation of FEMA workers, including many of the Vermonters hired to help in the aftermath of the spring floods, to travel there and put a stitch in it.

"It was so emotional to see the flag laid out like that, and to touch it again," Stoltenberg says. "And it felt really special to share it with the people I've been working alongside here in Vermont for all these months."

With the 9/11 anniversary approaching, Stoltenberg will be marking the day with co-workers at the Burlington offices.

"We'll take time to reflect," she says. "It's a very emotional time for our nation and especially for those of us at FEMA. But we also need to get on with our work of helping Vermonters who are facing the aftermath of the storm. As someone who's been on both sides of a disaster...

Last Updated: 
July 16, 2012 - 18:46
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