In a now-iconic image taken on Sept. 11, 2001, a trio of New York City firefighters (George Johnson, Dan McWilliams, and Billy Eisengrein) stand in the burning ashes of the World Trade Center and hoist an American flag into the air. The flag, which was taken from a nearby yacht, became a symbol of resilience during one of the darkest moments in recent U.S. history. However, within hours of the flag flying, it disappeared.
Concerned citizens tried in vain to trace the flag, but the flag used later that year was not the same one that the firefighters held high on Sept. 11. Finally, the original flag was recovered in 2016, but people want to know: What happened to the original 9/11 flag? Here's what we know about the original flag and its recovery.
The story of what happened to the Ground Zero flag was recorded in a 2013 documentary called 'The Flag.'
As it turns out, many people were looking for the original flag from Sept. 11. CNN interviewed the directors of the 2013 documentary The Flag after the original was recovered. The subject of their documentary was discovering why the original disappeared and where it could have gone.
Director Michael Tucker said at the time the original flag was "either misplaced, stolen or secreted away by unknown forces in the chaos of Ground Zero." An official was sent to pick up the flag roughly one week post-9/11, but the flag he received was not the original one that the firefighters flew. Instead, he was given a larger flag that would fly over Yankee Stadium during a Sept. 23 Prayer Service for 9/11.
Eventually, in 2014, the original flag reappeared in Everett, Wash. A man identified as a retired Marine named Brian turned the flag over to a local fire station in November, claiming he had been given the flag on Veteran's Day in 2007 by another man as a gift. The mysterious gift-giver claimed to have received the flag from the widow of a 9/11 firefighter.
Everett Deputy Police Chief Mark St. Clair searched for Brian later, even providing the public with a sketch to help find him and ask for further information, but Brian had disappeared. DNA testing later discovered that electrical tape on the flag’s halyard didn't match the DNA of the three firefighters in the photograph or the crew of the yacht from which the original flag was taken.
The Washington State Patrol laboratory was determined to prove the flag's authenticity, and forensic scientist William Schneck analyzed photos, flag fibers, and dust particles from the flag to compare to samples from World Trade Center dust. CNN reports that eventually, it was discovered that the "pulverized building material" was a match to dust on the flag and its ropes.
As of 2016, the flag has been shipped to New York City and remains on display near the entrance of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum.