Armco Inc. has apologized for ordering steel workers to remove an American flag the workers had hung before Japanese steel customers toured the company's Ashland Works.

"We now realize that we were wrong in asking our employees to remove the flag and that we have offended many people," Armco spokesman Bill Scaggs said Wednesday, reading from a statement. "For that error in judgment, we apologize."The company had said the flag was hung primarily to embarrass the Japanese, not to show patriotism. Workers denied that.

Scaggs delivered the apology to Michael Hewlitt, president of United Steelworkers Local 1865, and vice president Charles Whitlock in a rare appearance by a management official at the union local's hall.

Scaggs said that local and divisional company officials made the decision to apologize because the incident, which attracted national attention, hurt relations between the company and the plant's 3,200 workers.

Mike McCormick, the 37-year-old cast house helper who hung the 3-by-5-foot flag on a crane in the Amanda furnace, said he was not trying to embarrass the Japanese, who visited Monday.

"I was just proud to be an American steel worker," he said. "I think our industry has come a long way. That's the only message I was trying to send."

Hewlitt said the union was satisfied with Armco's apology.

The flag is now hanging in the employee lunchroom at the plant.

"This whole thing got blown out of proportion," said McCormick, "and I'm sorry it got to this point."