C Hill flag stands as firm reminder of 9/11

Photos by Shannon Litz/Nevada AppealDan Mooney, Gil Ayarbe and Josh Buscay were the original three behind the idea and design of the C Hill Flag.

Photos by Shannon Litz/Nevada AppealDan Mooney, Gil Ayarbe and Josh Buscay were the original three behind the idea and design of the C Hill Flag.

Gil Ayarbe has told the story of the flag countless times. Yet he takes his time as he tells it once more, savoring the memory.

"I was on a morning walk a little while after 9/11 with Dan Mooney, and we just said, 'Hey, we should put up a flag.'"

And then he smiles as he plays out the good parts: How the scores of volunteers hauled tons of cement and aluminum and steel up the mountainside on their backs, eventually getting help from prisoners and pack mules. How the 55 foundation holes had to be dug into the steep incline, one at a time, by hand. How children and retirees and lawyers on lunchbreaks showed up day after day, hauling up the pieces to build the massive flag on C Hill.

Today is the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. - the worst homeland assault in this nation's history.

It was that evil act that spurred a plucky group of Nevadans to an act of their own - an enduring stars-and-stripes display of patriotism, resilience and unity that's so big, it's visible from space.

The C Hill Flag measures 120 feet by 65 feet. Google-map "Carson City," and the flag shows up in satellite images. Its story has inspired U.S. troops serving in combat. It has spawned a business, a marriage and a baby.

To tell the story of the flag one more time, the originators recently gathered - among them, the surveyor, the sheet metal expert, the builder, the lawyer, the sign maker, the city supervisor and the seamstress.

•••

Retired surveyor Ayarbe, retired psychologist Mooney and Josh Buscay were the original three behind the idea and design of the flag.

Ayarbe and Mooney, who live in a neighborhood just below C Hill, sometimes walked their dogs together in the morning. It was a few days after Sept. 11, 2001, when they came up with the idea of putting up a flag as a symbol of community unity and patriotism. Neither can remember who voiced the idea first - and it doesn't really matter, because what grew from that seed would become bigger than both men.

Their original plan was to use heavy vinyl-coated fabric, so they went to a sign shop to inquire. Buscay, then 20, worked in sign production but wanted to be a designer. When his boss declined to commit to the flag project, Buscay stepped up. It had occurred to him, too, that a flag would be an appropriate symbol for the town.

"I liked the idea, and I'm patriotic, so I wanted to be a part of it," he says. Josh soon recruited his mom, Sarah, who has an upholstery shop in Carson City. Then he got some buddies in on the project, and as word spread, a former classmate of Josh's named Brittany was among those who showed up to help.

"My friend said Josh would be there," she says, "and I said, 'Josh who?' And when she said 'Josh Buscay,' well, he was my high school crush, so I went."

Josh and Brittany started dating during the flag project's infancy - Oct. 11, 2001, she recalls. The flag project gained momentum as their relationship flowered, and they married. Josh now has his own sign business in Carson City, and he and Brittany have an 11-month-old son, Atreyu.

"It's kind of our responsibility, to keep that thing up there," Buscay says of the flag. "The next generation."

•••

The flag on the hill now isn't the original one. This one's made of aluminum and steel and is anchored firmly to the ground.

The first iteration of the flag, which lasted 16 months before succumbing to the elements, was vinyl-coated fabric, measured and cut and painstakingly sewn together by Sarah Buscay, known as "the Betsy Ross of C Hill."

She also was among those who solicited contributions for the project, and as donations rolled in, they formed the C Hill Flag Foundation. She became vice president and secretary, and she still has a sheaf of those early spreadsheets listing countless donations of $50, $75, $100 and more from individuals and small businesses.

One of the first significant contributions - $1,500 - came from the city at the behest of Robin Williamson, who was on the Carson City Board of Supervisors at the time and who would ultimately become president of the C Hill Flag Foundation.

"They grew to $35,000 or $40,000 within weeks," Williamson says, citing donations from Carson City, Reno and beyond. As the politics-savvy one in the group, she saw to it that the foundation was on solid legal footing with such issues as access to state and federal lands. She smoothed the way with the Nevada Division of Forestry and then with the governor's office. The NDF even offered up a volunteer work crew of minimum-security inmates from the honor farm.

•••

Tod Jennings was born in Yerington and grew up in Carson City. He left to serve in the Air Force and, when he returned, joined the American Legion and met Ayarbe. The flag project lit something inside him, he says.

"I had the time and willingness to get involved," says Jennings, who soon became chief of operations for the foundation.

He coordinated the logistics of material and manpower, including the help from the inmates. Ten years later, he still speaks almost evangelically of how the project gave the prisoners a chance to get involved in "something good, a chance to pay back."

Jennings' son, Noah, now 13, has only vague memories of those early days.

"I remember standing on the hill with the wind blowing really hard, and the prisoners working," he says.

In time, Jennings passed the chief-of-operations baton to Mike Roach, a fellow military veteran who describes himself as "very patriotic." Roach came to Carson City in 1991 and got involved with the new, improved version of the flag.

"My background is in metal work and CAD (computer-assisted design)," he says. "I did drawings and made the blueprints. I worked at a company with a full sheet-metal shop, so we had access to the tools and equipment."

He enlisted co-workers to help during slow times in the shop, cutting the aluminum panels, overseeing the bending and trimming of metal. With his industry connections, he was able to procure a lot of the materials at a deep discount.

•••

Another of the project's inner circle is Bill Miles, third-generation Nevadan, Carson High School alumnus and owner and president of Miles Construction. As such, he had the pedigree, the people and the wherewithal to lend some serious heft to the endeavor.

Asked what motivated him to join up, he smiles and answers rhetorically: "What would you do?"

"I got involved once the foundation and footings were in place," he says, providing work crews, heavy equipment and leadership. He spent about a day a week on the hill, "corralling the kids." And he's quick to share the credit.

"Bob Crowell helped pack in the cement - the mayor," he says. "And I had two high school kids who came to me and said, 'Mr. Miles, we want to get in shape for construction jobs,' so I took them up there."

In addition to the metal and muscle, Miles used his business connections to get engineering and surveying work done cheap or free.

Retired sheet-metal worker Mark Green had just retired to Carson City when he saw a small ad in the newspaper seeking volunteers for the first flag project.

He had time, tools and expertise, so he called Mooney to offer his services. He was stunned when he learned of the project's scale.

"'These guys are crazy!'" he remembers thinking. He spent months working on that first flag - and then, two years later, got a call asking him to help with the new, beefed-up version.

"I had second thoughts on the first day, but not since then," he says now.

Like Ayarbe and others, Green has a meticulously cared-for album full of snapshots and newspaper clippings that have chronicled the project's 10-year life. Several snapshots show him crawling over the huge red and white aluminum panels that make up the flag's stripes, screwing in thousands of screws.

"When we were almost done," he says, "I stopped and had Gil screw in the last screw on the last panel."

•••

Chris MacKenzie, the attorney for the C Hill Flag Foundation, brings brains and brawn to the project. He has gone up the hill for years to maintain the white rocks of the giant "C," which were reportedly placed there in the 1920s by Carson High School students. He would go up the hill on his lunchbreak, roll up his sleeves and haul cement.

Now that the heavy lifting is done, he uses his expertise - business and environmental law among them - to keep the nonprofit foundation on solid legal ground. When he first got involved and saw the scope of the undertaking, he says, "I was not too sure about this."

But, like the others, he smiles as he describes the misery of the work - and the satisfaction of the outcome.

Pascal Carpiaux, another member of the original group, was born in Belgium and immigrated to the U.S. when he was young.

"A desire to serve my new homeland" led to a career in the U.S. military, and with his background as a combat engineer - "the best of both worlds: we build things, and we blow things up" - he was a perfect fit.

His brother heard about the original flag project, and Carpiaux decided to help.

"I was younger than a lot of the volunteers," he recalls, "so I didn't mind the physical labor. It was a good way to stay in shape."

Meanwhile, Ayarbe, known as the "keeper of the flag," points out that he's 84 years old and says he knows the flag will outlive him.

"When we're long gone, I can't believe that the flag won't still be there," he says, leaning on his cane outside his home one recent morning. He glances up the hill at his red, white and blue legacy, brilliant in the morning sun.

"It's never gonna die."

C Hill Flag by the numbers

Holes dug, by hand, for concrete footings: 55

Each hole: 3 feet by 3 feet by 3 feet (27 cubic yards)

Size of flag: 7,800 square feet (120 feet by 65 feet)

Number of panels: 390, each 4 feet by 5 feet

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