On the day of the September 11, 2001, attacks, a news photographer snapped a picture of New York City firefighters raising an American flag over the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center. The photo, credited to Thomas E. Franklin of the Bergen Record in New Jersey, became a symbol of resilience and hope on one of the darkest days in U.S. history.
However, the iconic 9/11 flag — which had been taken from a yacht called the Star of America — disappeared shortly after the disaster. According to the Sun Sentinel, a second flag was wrongly identified as the famous artifact, and the imposter was displayed for troops and even signed by former New York Gov. George Pataki and former New York City mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg before the mistake was discovered.
Meanwhile, the whereabouts of the authentic 9/11 flag remained a mystery until the History Channel’s Brad Meltzer’s Lost History aired an episode offering $10,000 for the return of the missing artifact. The show prompted a Marine who identified himself as only “Brian” to walk into an Everett, Washington, fire station and hand over a plastic bag containing a flag. It was the real 9/11 flag, he claimed, and he didn’t want the reward money. He said he was turning it over on behalf of a September 11 widow.
“It’s one of those things where it doesn’t seem real,” says History Channel host Brad Meltzer of the flag’s reappearance.
Not that the 9/11 flag’s authenticity was accepted at face value. The New York Times reports the artifact was sent to Bill Schneck, a forensic scientist for the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab, for extensive testing. Schneck says he was looking for the presence of 9/11 debris dust — made up of glass fibers, concrete, asbestos, and melted metal — on the flag.
“In this case, I compared the dust on the flag to known dust samples collected by others in the days after 9/11. It was like what you would call a fingerprint.”
Schneck also performed a thorough photo comparison between Brian’s flag and high-resolution images of the 9/11 flag taken by Franklin as it flew over the World Trade Center rubble.
The History Channel then got in touch with the 9/11 flag’s original owner, Shirley Dreifus, to help with visual identification. Less than a year after the terrorist attacks, Dreifus had discovered the imposter flag when she asked to borrow her former Star of America flag for a charity event. She recalled the moment she and her husband figured out the mistake on Meltzer’s show, which the Sun Sentinel quoted.
“We went to open it and lo and behold what we found was this gigantic flag that fit around both of us. And we said, this was not our 3 [feet] by 5 [feet] little flag. It was a totally different flag. This was not the flag in the photograph.”
Dreifus and a member of the Star of America crew looked at the 9/11 flag Brian turned in and came to the conclusion it was authentic because of the halyard, which is the rope line used to hoist the flag.
“The halyard was very particular,” Meltzer explains. “It was, in a strange way, practically handmade. It’s full of detail no one can possibly know.”
After Schneck’s particle analysis and Dreifus’ visual confirmation, a former FBI art crime investigator told Meltzer the 9/11 flag was “more authenticated than Rembrandts in museums.”
CNN reports the authenticated flag was unveiled at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum on Thursday, just in time for the 15th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Visitors to the museum, which was built on the site of Ground Zero, will be able to view the flag from its display near the entrance.
The History Channel will air America’s 9/11 Flag: Rise From the Ashes — which tells the story of the artifact’s return to New York City — on Sept. 11 at 10:30 p.m. ET.
[Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images]