It was a symbol of first responders’ heroic actions and a nation’s unconquerable spirit after the 9/11 terrorist attacks: the image of three firefighters hoisting an American flag above the rubble of Ground Zero, captured by a (Bergen County, N.J.)Record photographer.
Since that photo was taken on Sept. 11, 2001, however, the flag’s fate was a mystery — until Tuesday, when it was found.
The 9/11 Memorial & Museum in New York City announced that the flag had been returned to authorities in Washington state almost two years ago — by a man whose identity remains unknown — and would be unveiled at the museum in a ceremony Thursday morning.
“I’m glad that the flag is going to be at the 9/11 museum; that’s where it belongs,” said Thomas E. Franklin, the former Record photographer who took the iconic photograph and is now an assistant professor of journalism at Montclair State University.
Franklin said the photograph was not about the flag, but about the firemen who held it up and other first responders, along with the thousands of people who died that day. He added that he understands that the flag in the photo has become an important symbol for some — “If finding the flag is important to people and helps them heal, that’s terrific,” he said.
The flag was returned to authorities in Everett, Wash., in late 2014 shortly after a television show aired detailing its history, including that it had vanished. Another flag that was purported to be the one in the photo, but which was somewhat larger than the original, was displayed at various locations following the 9/11 attacks, including Yankee Stadium and an aircraft carrier, and signed by prominent officials. It was only years later that it was determined the original was missing.
The History Channel helped to authenticate the flag, according to the New York Times. The History Channel plans to air a show that will include details about the recovery of the flag on Sunday, the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
The original flag, which was taken from a yacht moored nearby in lower Manhattan, appears to have gone missing within five hours of the photograph, said Mark St. Clair, the Everett Police Department’s deputy chief of operations. He said video footage from the area taken five hours later shows it was not on the flagpole.
It is not clear how the original flag was replaced with another flag.
In 2002, the yacht’s owners approached city officials about using the flag for a fundraiser, St. Clair said. At that point, it was determined not to be the original.
No one knows how the flag made its way to Washington State. But a man who said he was named Brian dropped off the flag and an attached halyard at an Everett fire station in November 2014, St. Clair said. Police contacted The Record and received high-resolution images of Franklin’s photo that helped identify unique characteristics of the halyard, he said, adding that police also matched particles on the flag that appeared similar to those in the air following the 9/11 attacks.
He said that police determined its authenticity by late last year and turned it over to its owners in early August. Michael Frazier, a spokesman for the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, said that the flag’s original owner, Shirley Dreifus, and the Chubb insurance company — which had insured the yacht — donated it to the museum.
The insurance company said Tuesday that it paid a claim to the owner, adding that “the value of the now-historic flag was significant.”
When the flag was recovered, according to Chubb’s statement, it held an ownership interest. Chubb CEO Evan Greenberg said in the statement that the return of the flag is a “timely reminder of the spirit of our heroes and the resolve of a great city and a great nation.”