NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – If you drive across the George Washington Bridge on major holidays, you might notice a giant American flag.
It is one of the largest flags in the world.
CBS2’s Jenna DeAngelis got an exclusive look at the intricate process behind the display our nation’s patriotism.
The American flag’s broad stripes and bright stars represent the country’s strength, pride and unity.
“It’s a symbol of all of us,” said Kevin McSweeney, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey general maintenance supervisor and bridge painter. “What guarantees us our life, our life in America, our freedom.”
The flag has special meaning to McSweeney, a Veteran who spent time overseas with the U.S. Marine Corps in the 1980s. He also painstakingly responded to Ground Zero with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in 2001. For decades, he’s been part of making sure the flag is proudly displayed on the bridge that connects New York and New Jersey.
“It was flown originally in 1947 on Veterans Day to celebrate the victory in World War II, and it’s been flown ever since,” he said.
The American flag that waves over the GWB on major holidays has evolved over time. It’s now much larger and grander, measuring at 60 by 90 feet.
“It’s the largest free flying flag in the world,” said Frank Minervini, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey general maintenance supervisor.
But the flag that flew this past Memorial Day has been replaced. A new flag gets installed about every decade, or sooner if it’s torn or tattered.
“Wear and tear over the years with the weather,” Minervini explained.
Replacing the flag is quite the surprising process. It starts with temporarily shutting down some of the roadway overnight and cleaning the workspace, out of respect for Old Glory. Then, laying out a huge blue tarp to assemble the new flag on.
The 450 pound flag connects to a giant 1,500 pound pole made of steel and wood to hang from. This requires manpower.
Crews work to get the new flag set without it ever touching the ground. They even take off their shoes.
Step by step, workers hook up the flag, inspect it and make sure it’s picture perfect before carefully coiling it up to bring to the top of the bridge.
Night two of installation means another weekend-after-midnight project when roads are quiet.
Minervini gets a crew of about 30 people in place, including electricians and mechanics, on all sections of the bridge’s New Jersey tower to begin the installation process.
“Given the complexity of the height and weight of the flag and active traffic lanes, it’s a very unique process,” he said.
If you look closely, you can see a hole at the center of the tower. That’s where the flag lives when it’s not flying.
To get it there, the Port Authority has to carefully connect cables from each side of the span.
“A safety cable, a north and a south cable. They’re manually controlled, as if you were home operating your garage door opener,” said Minervini.
The focus is safety first and keeping traffic flowing during installation – only stopping cars on the bridge for a few minutes to allow a bucket truck to swing over for workers to grab cables and bring them down safely. Then, hooking them up to the flag, which now gets unwrapped.
Prepare for takeoff as it slowly rises up.
DeAngelis asked Minervini whether the sight ever gets old.
“Absolutely not,” he replied.
Those driving over the bridge during the installation get to enjoy it first.
“I want them to think about the people that are overseas fighting for our way of life,” said McSweeney.
After being tucked away, the slow reveal is a moment of pride for a true patriot.
“I love the flag, always did,” he added.
Those standing by watching let the symbol of our nation – the star spangled banner – speak for itself.
The next time the new flag will fly will be on Labor Day, as long as the weather holds up.
But the replacement process likely won’t happen again for another decade.
The new flag will be flown from 7:15 a.m. to 1:15 p.m. on the following major U.S. holidays:
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
The former flag will be sent to a company in Texas to be retired through proper disposal.