A tattered U.S. flag recovered from the debris of the World Trade Center following the terrorist attack last September is back in New York City after circling the globe on a space shuttle flight. The U.S. space agency NASA returned the flag to the city to commemorate the nation's observance of Flag Day.
In the rubble of the collapsed World Trade Center last year, workers rescued a flag that had flown atop the tall towers. It became a symbol of New York City's and the country's determination to overcome the tragedy.
To honor the victims and the heroes of the terrorist attack, NASA flew the flag aboard the space shuttle Endeavour when it visited the international space station in December. Accompanying it were flags from the U.S. Department of Defense near Washington, which was also attacked by terrorists, and nearly 6,000 small U.S. flags.
Friday, on the day set aside each year to honor the U.S. flag, NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe returned the Trade Center ensign to New York City along with city police and fire department badges and patches that also flew on the shuttle.
"All these items symbolize and bear witness to our nation's unbreakable spirit and the president's determination to achieve unity against those who would seek to break that spirit." he said.
Mr. O'Keefe spoke before an audience that included shuttle and space station astronauts, New York's mayor, the governor of New York State, pilots representing the airlines hijacked by terrorists on September 11, and representatives of New York's police and fire departments, which lost hundreds of their members in the Trade Center collapse.
The New York mayor, Michael Bloomberg, said the losses and destruction were devastating, but the country was not defeated.
"At the end of that terrible day, our flag was still there, and it always will be." he said. "Taking this flag into space and bringing it back was a gesture that reminds us that the best elements of humanity will overcome the worst."
The commander of the Endeavour mission that carried it to orbit, Dominic Gorie, said the flag's fibers are intertwined with the blood, sweat, and tears of many people who were in the World Trade Center on September 11. He said it is probably the most significant item ever carried aboard a shuttle.
"It was an incredible honor to return it here today, especially on this historic Flag Day," he said. "This flag, of any flag, I think in the country, deserves to fly on the highest flag pole, and we did our best and we took it to 250 miles [400 kilometers] and we're glad to bring it home."
While New York City is the recipient of the World Trade Center flag, the thousands of smaller flags, badges, and patches that flew on Endeavour will go to people who lost relatives or in some way played a heroic role following the buildings' collapse.