An Unsung 9/11 Hero and the Journey of an American Flag from Ground Zero to the Battlefield to The White House

Neil A. Carousso
September 11, 2018 - 1:47 pm

Donato Panico


On September 11, 2001, Donato Panico watched in horror as hijackers crashed two airliners into the World Trade Center. He felt he had to do something right away, and as the owner of a deli in Smithtown, NY for more than 3 decades, Panico knew he could provide a needed service.

“[My friend] was telling me that all kinds of commanding officers were killed down there and that they had no food system and it was in total chaos,” said Panico.

He prepared his catering trucks with sandwiches and drove to Ground Zero the next morning. He had gotten through most of the tight security checkpoints in Manhattan, but he was still far away from the Trade Center when a commanding officer, Louis Pacheco, recognized Panico from his Long Island deli and ushered him into the site so he could fill a void serving starving, dehydrated, weary, angry and saddened First Responders.

“A couple months later, [Pacheco] presented me with a flag that they hung in front of the Millennium Hotel,” Panico said. The Millennium Hotel is adjacent to One World Trade Center and suffered significant damage in the terrorist attacks.

Heros for Heroes

“He presented it to me and I presented it to a friend of mine in the store whose son was getting ready to deploy to Afghanistan. He hung it over his camp,” said Panico, continuing, “He had the flag commissioned by President [George W.] Bush and he returned it to me 4 years later,”

The friend took hung it over his base in Afghanistan, and later, Iraq where the flag was commissioned. 

Panico continued to lend the gifted flag to local police, fire and veterans organizations on Long Island to proudly display as a symbol of resilience in solemn commemoration of the attacks.

“You can’t hold onto something if you don’t give it away,” said Panico when asked why he felt so strongly about imparting such a meaningful and emotional souvenir to patriotic organizations. “It’s not my flag, it’s ours.”

His foundation Heros 4 Heroes was born from his instinct after the tragic events on 9/11; he created the non-profit to serve his delicatessen's food to our service men and women at home and abroad.

Today, Panico aims to keep a “constant awareness” of the need to take care of police officers, firefighters and our veterans who make sacrifices to keep us safe and free. He is currently undertaking a project to rebuild the patio at the Department of Veterans Affairs facility in Northport, Long Island.

At one of the first Heros for Heroes events, Panico met Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY). The congressman, an Army veteran deployed to Iraq in 2006 with the 82nd Airborne Division. He says Panico is a selfless patriot and has the “type of character, values, ethics and beliefs” that guided his selfless actions on 9/11.

“If he was on the first floor of the Trade Center that day, he would have gone straight up and started rendering first-aid to people even though he wasn’t NYPD or FDNY,” Congressman Zeldin said. “That’s his character.”

While the flag had been around the world there was one particular person Panico wanted to give the flag to, President Donald Trump.

Congressman Zeldin invited Panico to the president’s first State of the Union Address in January. Panico brought the flag with him in hopes to hand it to the President. Donato did not get to meet Mr. Trump that day, but Mr. Zeldin held onto the flag and on June 20, the Congressman received a phone call from The White House for a last minute policy meeting with President Trump and several representatives.

Zeldin recalled, “All I was thinking of was ‘where’s the flag?’”

After the meeting, Congressman Zeldin told President Trump about the flag.

“You could tell the story was impacting him, he was deeply moved by it, he was moved by Donato’s story, the first responders, the journey of that flag from the Trade Center, overseas to back home,” said Mr. Zeldin, adding that the president brought him into the Oval Office where he had an aide write down Panico’s story for a museum, and posed for a picture behind his Resolute Desk to send home to Donato.

Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead