The Mystery of Missing 9/11 Flag Solved After 15 Years, Thanks to Former Marine

June 3, 2019 Updated: June 3, 2019

It’s a day that no American who lived through could ever forget. We can all remember exactly where we were when the unthinkable happened and we saw the planes flying into the Twin Towers. Just when the country and world were in shock and grieving, one symbol of hope remained in the ashes.

At 5:00 p.m. that terrible day, three firefighters took an American flag that they had found on the Star of America, a yacht that was moored nearby on the Hudson River. Their plan was simple: raise the flag above Ground Zero. Raise it they did, and a photographer for The New Jersey Record caught the image on camera. It quickly became an iconic image of American pride and resilience in the face of unprecedented tragedy.

They raised the flag where the Twin Towers had once stood (©Getty Images | Spencer Platt)

As then-New York Fire Commissioner Thomas Van Essen told CNN, the picture of the flag was tremendously important. “It gave everybody hope, a symbol that we were going to be there as long as necessary and we were going to rescue people if we could.”

While the picture went around the world, the flag, or what was thought to be it, became an icon in and of itself. It was raised at the 2001 World Series, signed by Governor George Pataki and Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and even put on a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier deployed to the Middle East to launch strikes against Al-Qaida.

The flag used at the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks wasn’t the same as in the original photo (©Getty Images | Allan Tannenbaum-Pool)

There was only one problem—this flag wasn’t the original Ground Zero flag. It was much bigger to begin with and didn’t have the dust and ash on it that was all over the area after the buildings collapsed. But where had the original flag gone in the meantime? No one really knew. People assumed that it had been lost or stolen in the charred remains of the World Trade Center and the chaotic aftermath.

In 2013, CNN aired a documentary called “The Flag,” exploring the mystery, where they interviewed the owners of the yacht the flag was taken from, who said with certainty that the original was not the one they saw constantly show in the months and years that followed. Director Michael Tucker said the film was really about “that sense of unity. That sense of how we felt in those days and weeks after 9/11. That’s really something we’ve also lost.”

Thankfully, features and films like “The Flag” got the attention of Brian Browne, a former Marine and flag collector living in Everett, Washington. When he saw images of the original flag in a History Channel show, he was stunned. In 2006, someone had given him a plastic bag with a flag rolled up inside.

While at the time, he didn’t make much of it and put it away in his collection, he now knew the truth. He had the 9/11 flag right there in his house. Browne turned the flag in to his local fire department, and from there, the dust and ashes on the flag were analyzed and found to be the real deal. The original owners also verified it as the flag they had purchased and mounted.

Now, the flag has found its appropriate resting place: the National September 11 Memorial & Museum on Ground Zero. President of the Memorial, Joe Daniels told CBS News, “we’re just thrilled that this is the actual flag that’s going to be here forever for people to see.” A defining moment in the history of a flag that will always bring the country together.

The flag’s final resting place: The September 11 National Memorial & Museum (©Getty Images | Spencer Platt)