Josh Dorfman was 8 years old the last time he saw the world’s largest American flag — weighing in at 7 tons and spanning 400 feet.
But on Saturday, Dorfman, now 26, saw the flag again after it had been in storage for 18 years.
“My memory of it is I remember it being there, but it was tough for me to really grasp how large, how meaningful it was,” Dorfman said.
“And the events of 9/11 hadn’t really sunk in to me at that point, so for us to have it back out, especially with so many volunteers that came out to participate today, it means a lot.”
About 60 volunteers, including kids, Girl Scouts, Cub Scouts and Young Marines, gathered at Advanced Carbide Grinding in Derry Township on Saturday morning for the chance to touch a piece of history that was last seen during a September 11 tribute.
At 10 a.m., people got a glimpse of the flag as it was slowly lifted by crane and laid down on tarps.
By 12:30 p.m., volunteers, many dressed in red, white and blue, had the flag spread across a field behind the facility, clapping at their accomplishment.
“It’s like history in the making,” said Carol Williams, 71, of Lower Burrell. “Twenty years from now, when I’m sitting in my rocking chair I’ll be able to say, ‘I saw that — I saw that flag.’ ”
A piece of history
Originally designed by Len Silverfine, a marketing professor at the University of Vermont, in 1976, the flag was to act as a backdrop for the Bicentennial.
Completed in June 1976, the flag was hung from the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in New York City with the help of 40 ironworkers.
But the flag was quickly shredded to pieces as winds increased.
Still, Silverfine was not done with his project. Setting out again with the help of engineers and textile specialists to design a flag to hang from the bridge, Silverfine spent days picking out the best thread and dye for his project he hoped would be waved proudly on holidays and special occasions.
Despite successfully designing the 71,000-square-foot flag with Anchor Industries in Evansville, Ind., it was never hung from the bridge.
Janet Brady, associate professor and director of the Grundy Materials Evaluation Laboratory at Thomas Jefferson University, said that while Silverfine was able to raise money to construct the flag, he was not able to raise enough for the hardware to hang it.
Instead, the flag was unfurled for the first time on March 22, 1980, to a crowd of more than 10,000 people at the Evansville Airport in Evansville, Ind. At the time, the flag was dedicated to the 52 Americans who where being held hostage in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
Brady of Doylestown traveled to Derry to see the flag that was designed in the laboratory she now heads and to analyze it for any damage.
“It’s completely emotional. Because the person who was part of the engineering team to put it together was my greatest mentor. So that meant a lot to me. My father was sailing his tanker under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in early June of ’76 when the original flag” was flying, Brady said. “So there’s a personal connection, then there’s a career connection.”
Peter Ansoff, 66, of Annandale, Va., traveled up to see the flag as part of the North American Vexillological Association, an international flag organization.
“Flags are interesting things,” Ansoff said. “I tell people I study flags and they relate that to stamp collecting or model trains and stuff like that.
“I always tell them, ‘No, flags are different. There haven’t been too many Supreme Court cases about model trains or too many soldiers who have risked their lives on a battlefield for a stamp.’ The point is: flags just aren’t things; they have meaning.”
And for Young Marines Brynn Mayercheck, 13, and Jake Taylor, 15, that holds true.
“It means a lot to us. As Young Marines respect means a lot. So being able to see the world’s biggest flag is amazing,” Mayercheck said, adding that it was “an honor” to be able to help unfurl the flag again after so many years.
Coming to Derry
After being used for dedications across the country, the flag came to find an unlikely home with Ted Dorfman, Josh’s dad, in Derry Township after a fateful day when he submitted a winning bid of $12,300 on eBay.
At the time, Ted Dorfman said he was focused on veterans issues, because he felt they were not getting enough attention from the government.
But the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center twin towers in New York City and in Shanksville stopped Dorfman from immediately realizing his dream of showing the flag off across the country.
“It was delivered in August in this trailer, and then the terrorists struck and we had that unfortunate, tragic experience, but the flag served as a wonderful symbol for the ceremony at that time,” he said. “A very excellent symbol.”
On Saturday, Brady inspected the flag for stains, tears or damage that the flag could have endured in storage. Throughout the week, it will be stored in Advanced Carbide Grinding and then will travel to Hood Sails Co. of Marblehead, Mass., which manufactured the flag, for any repairs.
Josh Dorfman, who started the nonprofit Great American Flag Preservation Group with his partner, A.J. Rehberg, a few months ago, said they believe the flag is structurally sound but sustaining a few stains and fading.
And while parts of the flag may have faded, the dream of taking it cross country has not.
“Where I live in Arlington, Va., there’s so much history and folks that can come and visit are able to see it, but history can’t go to them,” Josh Dorfman said. “So the flag, we believe, is a mobile monument that will be able to tour around the country and just make sure every American has an opportunity to witness something special.”