Joplin helps repair flag saved after 9/11 attacks

First responders hold the National September 11 flag during a ceremony in Joplin, Mo., Sunday, Sept. 11, 2011 marking the end of the 50 state restoration tour. The final stitches are being placed in Joplin and then the flag will go to the National 9/11 Memorial Museum.

First responders hold the National September 11 flag during a ceremony in Joplin, Mo., Sunday, Sept. 11, 2011 marking the end of the 50 state restoration tour. The final stitches are being placed in Joplin and then the flag will go to the National 9/11 Memorial Museum. Photo by The Associated Press.

JOPLIN, Mo. (AP) — Christy Miller grew up in southwest Missouri, moving to Joplin after high school. At 34, with two children and limited mobility because of multiple sclerosis, she's never been to New York — or even traveled outside of the state except for trips across the border to Arkansas.

Charlie Vitchers is a native New Yorker with the telltale accent to boot. The former ground zero construction supervisor had never been to Joplin, or anywhere else in Missouri, other than highway rest stops.

Two people, from two different worlds, united by a pair of disasters — one natural, one manmade. Both came together on Sunday, the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, to not only honor the victims but also celebrate a country's collective perseverance and resiliency in the face of tragedies that only those who lived through can truly understand.

"We're so far away from the World Trade Center," said Miller, who brought her mother, two children and another relative to the Joplin tribute. "But it doesn't matter how far away you are."

Vitchers, who recovered a tattered American flag near the two towers that has been transformed into a national symbol of hope, also described a connection with the Joplin tornado survivors that transcends geography, culture and speech patterns.

"Don't forget, most of the people in this community have never been to New York," he said. "Everybody's expectations are put off the shelf when we get here and they get to know us.

"They think we want everything in a hurry, it's gotta happen now, we're going to be bossy," Vitchers added. "And we give people out west some of the same stereotypes — they're slower, they're not lazy, but they just don't do things in a fast pace, 'it can wait 'til tomorrow.' We find out we have everything in common — family values, our belief in God, our belief in the country."

Vitchers and a contingent of New York City firefighters, rescue workers and disaster survivors from across the country brought the 20--by-30-foot flag Sunday to the site of the nation's deadliest single tornado in the past six decades. At least 160 people died in the May 22 tornado, with hundreds more injured and thousands of homes and businesses destroyed.

Joplin was the final stop on a 50-state tour by the New York Says Thank You Foundation, a group started in 2003 by a New York venture capitalist whose business partner died on the top floor of the trade center and who wanted to return the nation's kindness while promoting volunteerism.

The flag remained in storage at Vitchers' summer home in Pennsylvania's Delaware River Valley until three years ago, when he and foundation founder Jeff Parness brought it to Greensburg, Kan., also hit by a deadly tornado.

That's where the flag stitching began, followed by trips to the Fort Hood military base in Texas, the Kentucky Derby, Mount Rushmore, New Orleans and other American landmarks or disaster sites.

"They built me a house in '07," said James Vincent, a volunteer firefighter from Groesbeck, Texas whose home was destroyed by a tornado that year. "Now I'm part of the family."

A 30-minute silent ceremony — coincided with the time between when the twin towers were hit — began the Sunday event, which was held across the street from the Joplin hospital where at least nine people died when the tornado tore off its top three floors. A military and police procession then escorted the flag across town to Missouri Southern State University for a brief memorial service followed by the flag stitching.

Tornado survivors and other Joplin residents stood patiently in line inside the campus basketball arena, waiting their turn to sew a single stitch onto 2-foot by 6-foot nylon square panels. Once restored, the flag will go to the National 9/11 Memorial Museum in lower Manhattan.

"The stitching is symbolic. It's stitching everybody together," said Patricia Thompson, 73, who lost her home in the Joplin tornado but survived by hunkering down in her bathtub.

That's one side of the new national reality, 10 years later. Another was also on display in Joplin: camouflage-wearing police snipers perched atop vans near Cunningham Park and St. John's Regional Medical Center. Amid the morning tribute, an Associated Press reporter interviewing Joplin residents in the public park was approached by two undercover police officers who said his questions made them suspicious.

A Joplin police officer said authorities were just trying to keep people safe.

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