A flag rises in one of the most iconic photographs of Sept. 11, 2001. Three firefighters took it from the Star of America yacht in the Hudson River and raised it on an angled pole amidst the ruins of the World Trade Center.
Within five hours, the flag was gone, but it lived on in the photograph by photojournalist Thomas Franklin, a symbol of hope and resilience following the terrorist attack.
The flag resurfaced two years ago, and today is being introduced at the National September 11 Memorial Museum, three days before the 15th anniversary of the attacks. But what happened in those missing years is unknown. The first clue is a man only known as Brian. No last name, no address, no phone number.
Brian arrived at a fire station in Everett, Washington on Nov. 4, 2014, according to HeraldNet. He was holding a plastic bag with a 3-foot by 5-foot U.S. flag inside and a halyard – the rope and the brass and silver hardware used to hang the flag on a pole.
Brian told the firefighters he had been watching a documentary on historical artifacts, and one segment detailed the missing ground zero flag. He said he was a Marine and was given the flag in honor of his military service on Veterans Day 2007. Before that, he said the flag was with an employee of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who had been given the flag by a 9/11 widow.
John W. Cutter, who was a member of the New York Police Department’s criminal intelligence section and retired as a deputy chief in 2004, said in a History Channel program to debut Sunday that flags used at burials typically do not include halyards.
“This leads me to believe that he received the flag in some other fashion and is afraid to say how he got it,” Cutter said.
Brian told the firefighters he would like the flag returned to the people of New York City. He said he didn’t want a reward or publicity. Then he left. Multiple attempts to find the man since then – including a police sketch and scouring surveillance footage – have failed.
Detectives Jim Massingale and Mike Atwood took over the flag investigation, with the Everett police department keeping it secret. They quickly learned the flag originally belonged to Star of America yacht owners Shirley Dreifus and her husband, Spiros Kopelakis. Their insurance company reimbursed them, after the flag was taken by the firefighters on September 11, and subsequently lost.
The detectives sent the flag in for forensics testing and found out by Christmas that the debris residue on the flag was consistent with the dust from ground zero.
“We got to handle the flag several times. It was pretty powerful,” Massingale said. “It was powerful to hold it in your hands.”
The flag matched in size, nylon material and stitching to the one in the September 11 photo. Certain oddities about the halyard, tape and rope in the September 11 photos matched as well.
The yacht’s second mate, Monica Rosero, flew out to look at the flag and halyard in Everett. She said the black electrical tape on the rope was the work of her late husband and she was 80 percent sure it was the same flag.
A former FBI agent and art fraud expert said priceless paintings are less scrutinized than the flag in Everett was, according to HeraldNet.
“I feel very strongly that’s the halyard in the photograph,” Massingale told HeraldNet, saying the same about the flag.
“I’m even more confident,” Atwood added.
The two breathed a sigh of relief on Aug. 4 when a museum curator came to the police station to collect the flag and halyard, knowing it was headed back home to Manhattan.
Shirley Dreifus told The New York Times she was saddened that her husband died two years ago and could not share the news. She said he had called it “the icon of the century.”
“It’s truly amazing,” Dreifus said. “In fact, ‘stunning’ is the way I put it.”
But 13 years of the flag’s life remain a mystery.
“We didn’t have an agenda. We were never pressured to say it’s the flag,” Massingale said. “People will draw their own conclusions based on the investigation.”