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**FILE** Eric Noda, 27, of Danville, extends a roller to paint stars on a giant flag image at the top of the Sunol Grade in Alameda County, Calif., on Sept. 24, 2001. Noda, along with his friends Tom Hanley and Robert Waldron, painted the 35-foot American flag over a grafitti covered slab of concrete on the hillside. It took them two and a half hours. Hundreds of the commuters passing below honked in support (an average of about one every ten seconds). (CONTRA COSTA TIMES/BOB PEPPING)

SUNOL — A mural of an American flag three friends painted on a concrete slab on the Sunol Grade after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks was covered by gray paint this week after Caltrans said it was considered graffiti on state-owned land.

Caltrans spokesman Allyn Amsk said Wednesday morning's removal had nothing to do with a lack of patriotism and everything to do with policy.

"We don't allow graffiti on state property," Amsk said. "No matter what kind of graffiti it is. We don't show favoritism."

Someone within the agency asked in June to check if the painted flag on the hillside off southbound Interstate 680 was on state-owned land, Amsk said.

It turned out it was. The paint-over project was then put on the agency's regular graffiti removal schedule, Amsk said. Just days before Independence Day, the flag disappeared after eight years and nine months.

The flag's original painters, R.J. Waldron, Eric Noda and Thomas Hanley said they were inspired to get up before dawn on Sept. 24, 2001, pile into a truck armed with red, white and blue paint and sketch out the 35-foot flag to show solidarity with those who lost their lives in the terrorist attacks that month.

For all the thousands of commuters on the Sunol Grade, the flag served as a symbol of patriotism — and also as a reminder "why they are going to work every day," said Waldron, 35, of Concord.

Waldron found the spot during his commute and thought it was a perfect spot to paint a flag. He asked friends Noda and Hanley to join him.

They didn't have permission, Waldron said, but California Highway Patrol officers didn't stop them as they drove past. As the sun rose and commuters saw what the three men were doing, they heard honks of support from the drivers below.

"There was already graffiti on (the spot)," said Hanley, 35, of Redwood City. "It would be better to have something that meant something to so many people."

Hanley said there were times the guys talked about touching up the flag's paint, but before they could, someone else had already beaten them to it.

Noda, 36, of Dublin, said he understood why Caltrans took it down — it wasn't in such good shape the last time he saw it, and vandals had tagged the painting.

Even so, the flag will be missed, he said.

"It looked like it belonged there," Noda said. "It really did."

Contact Sophia Kazmi at 925-847-2122. Follow her at Twitter.com/sophiakazmi.