As John and Barbara Sullivan unfolded an 8-by-12-foot American flag, they became emotional.
It had been 10 years since they looked at the flag that was signed by thousands just after 9/11.
“This is even hard for us,” John said.
The couple, owners of on Lacey Road in Forked River, never anticipated that their product would become a hot commodity and under the circumstances, they wished it hadn’t.
“Our business is the pulse of how the country is feeling at the time,” John said. “Many times when business is booming, it means the country is in turmoil.”
John was working in the office when he heard that two hijacked planes had flown into the Twin Towers. When he went downstairs to open the doors, he just expected a few customers to come in.
Thousands would soon wait on line outside of American Eagle Flag. But it was not about business, John said.
From family members of victims and survivors to first responders and everyday people, the Sullivans heard story after story.
“It was very emotional. Every day was sad,” Barbara said. “Since 9/11 it has been a much more emotional atmosphere here.”
“It was heart-wrenching. Everyone had a story. We were in a mental daze for months after 9/11,” John said.
Flag Offered Comfort
The Sullivans saw an incredible influx of customers during that time, many who would enter the store crying, they said.
“It’s like the flag gave them something to hold onto in a sense,” Barbara said.
The flag seemed to offer people a sense of comfort, she said.
With hundreds from as far as the Poconos lined up out the door, customers were limited to one flag each. If they wanted an additional flag, they would have to get on line again. And only five customers were allowed to enter at once.
But the Sullivans put responders first. Although they could not guarantee flags for everyone, John would make an announcement if anyone waiting on line was a responder, they could cut ahead and enter the store.
“Our feeling was that they were doing their part at Ground Zero,” he said.
After John’s announcement, one gentleman raised his hand all the way at the end of the line. He had just come from Ground Zero and as he walked toward the entrance of the store, the waiting crowd applauded.
“Knowing that he might get the flag they waited three hours for, they still gave a standing ovation,” John said. “That was very uplifting. We saw the best and the worst of humanity during that time. That was one of the best.”
It got to the point where John no longer had to ask whom the first responders were, he said.
“I knew who they were. They had a glazed look in their eyes. It was like they came from hell and back. If I close my eyes, I can still see the look,” John said. “A lot of people had anguish but responders, they were the walking dead.”
After that first day, the Sullivan’s ordered an additional 48 flags.
“I wanted to get everyone a flag. I would have ordered 48,000 if I knew,” John said.
More Than A Business
Even though the experience of operating a flag store seemed traumatic, it provided the Sullivans with opportunities and experiences they would not have otherwise had.
“The business allowed us to be helpful to people in a strange way,” Barbara said.
An older lady approached John with tears in her eyes after waiting in line and asked if she could give him a hug. He asked, “For what?”
“She said, ‘for what you’re doing. You gave me a place to come where I can feel like I was a part of it,’ " John said.
To this day, people thank the Sullivan’s for creating a safe haven for the community, Barbara said.
“We didn’t realize what we were doing. It took on a whole new life. We no longer were a business. We were a gathering place in the community,” John said.
John pulled one 8- by 12-foot flag and decided to have residents sign it for President George Bush as a petition to protect the country.
When John went on break, there was a line of people waiting to sign the flag. When he left the store for the day, there would be candles along the outside of the store and people on ladders signing the flag.
“You’re not supposed to write on flags but this warranted it,” John said. “It was no longer a petition. They took it further.”
Within a day, the flag had thousands of signatures and messages reflecting the emotions of the people.
One message written by an 8-year-old stood out to John. It said, “To all the children of victims, America is your family now.”
John put out four more flags to sign and had them sent to then Secretary of State Colin Powell, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, New Jersey acting Gov. Donald DiFrancesco and the Port Authority at Ground Zero.
The Sullivans were able to present the flag at Ground Zero as part of a ceremony. The Port Authority later sent a letter to American Eagle Flags telling the Sullivans that after spending hours at the rubble, they would read the flag and cry.
The flag still stands at a Port Authority garage, John said.
The impact of 9/11 would continue to weigh heavy on the Sullivans for years to follow.
First responders, who originally stopped by the store for a flag, would continue to visit. One responder would knock on the back door daily, bringing a new artifact from Ground Zero.
From 9/11 through the war in Iraq, John has been called upon to install flagpoles for memorials at the homes of those who died on Sept. 11 or in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Each family has an emotionally charged story to share, and John has heard them all.
Once troops began to be deployed to Iraq, the couple kept correspondence with a major. The major had told the Sullivans that his unit questioned every morning why they were there.
John sent a 3-by-5-foot flag that had stood at Ground Zero, a picture of the flag in the rubble, and a marble cross from the lobby of one of the towers to remind the unit what they were fighting for, he said.
The unit would later take a picture with all three gifts at the location of the sinkhole where Saddam Hussein was found.
That American flag has gone to Iraq on three separate occasions, John said.
But the patriotism the Sullivans witnessed during the months following 9/11 has dwindled. Before 9/11, the Sullivans could not give American flags away. After 9/11, the couple went from experiencing a flag crisis to people simply moving on, John said.
“It’s not anywhere near where the country was emotionally 10 years ago,” he said.
To view one of the flags that was signed a decade ago by a mourning community, visit American Eagle Flags.
“We want them to remember that period of time in our lives. It was the best of humanity coming out,” John said. “They have no idea the impact they left on my life. We will not only not forget [9/11] but we will never forget that feeling.”