Spirit of 9/11 keeps flying with heroic Hester flag

Photos by Heather Dubin John Casalinuovo put on a harness to prepare to drop the 1,800-square-foot flag over the building’s side.

Photos by Heather Dubin
John Casalinuovo put on a harness to prepare to drop the 1,800-square-foot flag over the building’s side.

BY HEATHER DUBIN  |  The unfurling of an enormous American flag down the side of a six-story building in Chinatown tends to bring traffic to a halt. This happens annually on the corner of Hester and Mott. Sts. when John Casalinuovo, who volunteered at Ground Zero for nine months at the Salvation Army tent, leads a tradition he began on Sept. 9, 2002.

This year’s commemoration on Sept. 6 drew a large crowd of family, friends and fellow former Ground Zero volunteer workers to Casalinuovo’s building. The group was there to reconnect and watch the lowering of the 60-foot-by-30-foot, 94-pound American flag.

In an interview afterward, Casalinuovo spoke about the event, and his 9/11 experience.

“I was there an hour after the first plane hit, and Denise [his wife] was on the pile by 6:30 the next morning,” Casalinuovo said. On Sept. 12, he was there at 4:30 a.m., and worked on the pile for the first three days of the recovery effort. After the situation became more organized, Casalinuovo and his wife, Denise Lutey-Casalinuovo, worked at the Salvation Army tent until the site closed on May 31, 2002.

“We were together every day. We were the lucky ones,” Casalinuovo said, “We were able to go home and talk together.”

The bond between Ground Zero volunteers stems from a unique shared experience. Casalinuovo explained that volunteers focused their energies at the perimeter of the site, understood each other and got things done.

For the first year anniversary of the attack, the couple decided to have a gathering at their home. They considered their new good friends to be lifelong, and wanted to bring everyone together on a day they knew people would still have raw emotions.

“It was nine months that changed thousands of people’s lives,” Casalinuovo said.

For three months, beginning on Sept. 22, 2001, the original flag of this event flew over Ground Zero. The couple incorporated that flag into their celebration, but it has since been retired. According to Casalinuovo, the cotton was starting to wear. However, the polyester replacement holds better and folds like cotton.

Casalinuovo and about 16 men carefully hang the flag from the roof around the same time every year, the Thursday before Labor Day, and take it down the following Thursday after Sept. 11. The couple also hosts an open house on Sept. 11 for first responders, family and activity military.

The flag after being slowly unfurled from the building’s rooftop.

The flag after being slowly unfurled from the building’s rooftop.

The first time they took the flag down in 2002, no one showed up.

“Now it’s a party when it comes down,” Casalinuovo said. “The cops are wonderful, the Fifth Precinct. Our firehouse lost five guys, they help me. It’s a really tight community.”

This year, the flag will come down on Sept. 21 at sunset. In previous years, as many as 300 people have helped participate in folding it.

“It’s the coolest thing to watch it get folded,” Casalinuovo said. “You have all these different people — a waiter next to a cop, next to a street guy, next to a Vietnam vet — all smiling, and they all have a piece of it.”

The emotional power of the flag touches him, and he thinks it pulls people together.

“Without the disaster, there would have been no one here the other day,” he said with a laugh. “Some good came out of here.”

The flag makes appearances at Veterans Day parades in Manhattan and the Bronx, baseball games and art displays. Casalinuovo and his wife do charity work and hold fundraisers through their volunteer organization, thegroundzeroflag.org.

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