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Missing iconic 9/11 flag returns to NYC after 15 years, amid mystery

LOWER MANHATTAN — It may be the most iconic image of September 11, 2001: three firefighters, raising an American flag over the massive pile of rubble, during the nearly futile search for survivors. The image was highly evocative and deeply meaningful.

"With everything that came down" that day, said 9/11 Museum Chief Curator Jan Ramirez, "it was the first thing to go up."

The story of the Ground Zero flag doesn't actually begin at Ground Zero. It starts across West Street from the World Trade Center site, at the North Cove Marina, on the Hudson River.

The special events yacht Star of America was anchored in the North Cove that fateful morning. Firefighter Dan McWilliams, who is in the iconic photo, took the flag off of the yacht and raised it on top of the pile, along with two other firefighters. It flew all day on 9/11, while the desperate search for survivors was underway. That evening, somebody took the flag down and replaced it with a larger one.

The larger, replacement flag, has been seen widely by the public over the years. It was signed by many World Trade Center heroes, as well as dignitaries. It was displayed at Yankee Stadium and flew aboard an aircraft carrier, among other prominent places.

However, it was not the original Ground Zero flag. It had disappeared the night of Sept. 11 without a trace.

Then in 2014, The History Channel television show "Decoded" did an episode seeking the missing flag. It even offered a $10,000 reward for it to be turned in. Immediately, something most unusual happened.

"I never thought, four days after we aired," said Brad Meltzer, the creator and host of "Decoded," that someone would turn that flag in."

A Marine in Everett, Washington turned the flag in to his local firehouse. He sought no reward, and it has yet to be publicly disclosed how the flag had traveled 3,000 mile across the country.

All that is known about the man who ended up with the flag is that his name is Brian, and he'd kept the flag at his house. The local firefighters in Everett turned the flag over to local police detectives who specialize in missing properties. They, in turn, called the woman who supervises the state evidence lab.

After they had told her about the flag, and asked her to keep the find under wraps until they could figure out how to investigate its authenticity, "Her counterpart walks in," said Michael Atwood, one of the detectives, "he bumps his mouse, and that photo [of the flag being raised] comes up."

"That's been his screensaver since 9/11," said Jim Massingale, the other Everett Police Department property crime detective. It felt as though it was meant to be, the detectives said.

The state lab had a relationship with one of the foremost experts on DNA in Ground Zero dust, Massingale said. The expert focused on electrical tape that was wrapped around the halyard, or rope, that had held up the flag.

"He was able to open the tape, and the DNA matched the dust and debris from 9/11," Massingale said. Dust on the flag itself matched also.

So on Thursday morning, the flag was formally introduced to the world in a ceremony at the 9/11 Museum. The firefighters in the famous photo, as well as Thomas Franklin, the photographer who took it, chose not to attend the ceremony. Instead, the flag was the centerpiece.

It is 99 percent certified as THE flag, as Shirley Dreifus, the owner of the yacht it came from pointed out, in the absence of the yacht's co-owner, her husband Spiros Kopelakis. He passed away just before full certification of the flag could be made.

"He really thought it belonged to the American people and everyone needed to see it," Dreifus said after Thursday's ceremony.

Her husband's wish has come true, at the 9/11 Museum, as mentioned by the man whose initial efforts resulted in the flag returning to the World Trade Center site.

"My kids came here two months ago," said Meltzer, the television host and mystery novelist, "and this flag wasn't here. Now, I get to take [my kids] back."

"Take your kids here," he advises, "and show them proof of what we're capable of on our best days."