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Flag found 15 years after it was raised in impromptu 9/11 Ground Zero ceremony

The colors' reappearance remain as mysterious as their disappearance

Flag found 15 years after it was raised in impromptu 9/11 Ground Zero ceremony

2001 The Record, (Bergen County, N.J.). Thomas E. Franklin, Staff Photographer Fair Use

A flag that was at the center of an iconic photo from September 11, 2001, has resurfaced after mysteriously disappearing 15 years ago.

Now, on the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that destroyed New York’s Twin Towers, the flag will be displayed near the entrance of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, built on the site of “Ground Zero.”

The colors, which came off a yacht in nearby New York Harbor, were raised at the site of the massive attack late in the afternoon of 9/11 by three New York City firemen on the scene. Though they didn’t know it yet, 343 of their comrades perished that day, along with scores of police officers and a couple thousand civilians.

The spontaneous flag-raising was captured by a photographer from The Bergen Record, a New Jersey daily. The image was reminiscent of a similarly iconic photograph of Marines on Iwo Jima in World War II, and became a symbol of national pride as a grieving nation turned to a search for answers and President George W. Bush led America’s military response. The image has been replicated in memorials, a US postage stamp and tourist memorabilia.

Mysteriously, though, the colors themselves disappeared within hours of the ceremony at the chaotic downtown site.

The flag’s reappearance is as mysterious as its disappearance, CNN reports.

The original flag was “either misplaced, stolen or secreted away by unknown forces in the chaos of ground zero,” according to Michael Tucker, who produced, wrote and directed a 2013 CNN film “The Flag:”

When an official was sent to pick up the original flag a week or so after 9/11, he apparently received a larger flag which was flown at subsequent events, the film’s director said.

That was the flag that flew over Yankee Stadium during a 9/11 Prayer Service on September 23, and fluttered over the USS Roosevelt as the aircraft carrier sent missions over Afghanistan.

The original flag eventually resurfaced in Everett, Washington, CNN says.

A man who only identified himself as a retired Marine named “Brian” turned it over to a local fire station in November 2014.

The only other information Brian gave was that he had been given the flag on Veterans Day 2007 by a man who had received it from the widow of a 9/11 firefighter, said Everett Deputy Police Chief Mark St. Clair. Brian then vanished.

Investigators in Everett were unable to find “Brian,” and DNA discovered on electrical tape on the flag’s halyard did not match DNA from any of the three firefighters who originally raised the ensign or the owners and crew of the yacht. But Washington State Patrol forensic scientist William Schneck was able to match dust in the flag’s fibers to a pure sample of dust taken from a New York City fire truck at ground zero.

“We wanted to be thorough and complete and be able to have the investigation stand independently,” said Everett Detective Jim Massingale, a retired Army Ranger. “We knew it would be scrutinized.”

And that’s not all. A retired New York Police Department officer who now works with the Everett Police Department held the flag as it was being packaged to return to New York City.

“He actually grabbed onto that flag, held it up to his face and smelled it, and turned and looked at me and said, ‘That’s the smell that I remember from that day,'” Detective Michael Atwood told CNN.

Shawn Neal

John Burger

John Burger is a news editor at Aleteia. He formerly worked at the National Catholic Register and Catholic New York in the Archdiocese of New York. He has also written for a wide variety of Catholic publications.