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How One Flag Became a Beacon of Hope on 9/11

Three firefighters raise the flag at Ground Zero on 9/11. This proved by one of the most enduring images of the day. Credit: Thomas Franklin.

On Tuesday, September 11, 2001 four passenger airliners were hijacked by 19 al-Qaeda terrorists. They conducted the single deadliest terrorist attack in history, and the single deadliest killing of firefighters and law enforcement officers.

These attackers successfully struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but others were denied their strike on the White House.  

This act of war killed 2,997 individuals and injured over 6,000 others.

Today is Patriot Day and National Day of Service and Remembrance, a period of time on which the nation pauses to remember and honor the memory of those who perished eighteen years ago.


Two Presidents, One Day 

Shortly after the attack, Congress proposed a resolution asking President George W. Bush to designate September 11 of each year as Patriot Day.  The President signed the resolution into law on December 18, 2001.

Using the authority of the resolution, on September 4, 2004 President George W. Bush proclaimed September 11, 2002 at the first Patriot Day.

To further the importance of the day, President Barack Obama proclaimed September 11, 2016 as Patriot Day and National Day of Service and Remembrance.

He wrote in part:

We must ensure that darkness is no match for the light we shine by engaging in acts of service and charity.

The acts of three firefighters, one photographer and one Marine veteran all provide a lasting ray of light on today.

Two beams of light pierce the darkness over New York City in a show of respect and resilience. Credit: Gary Hershorn.

Three Firefighters and The 9/11 Flag

In the midst of the rubble that was once the World Trade Center, one firefighter – Daniel McWilliams – noticed an American flag on the Star of America, a 130-foot yacht moored near the World Financial Center.

Acting on his thoughts, he liberated the ensign from the stern of the Star of America, rolled the 3-foot by 5-foot flag up so it would not touch the ground, and headed back to Ground Zero.

Along the way, he enlisted the help of fellow firefighters William Eisengrein and George Johnson.

The trio found a flagpole within the rubble about 20 feet off the ground; used black electrical tape to bind two lengths of rope; built a make-shift ramp; and then climbed to the pole and raised the flag.

“Every pair of eyes that saw that flag got a little brighter,” McWilliams recalled in a 2014 interview.


One Photographer, and An Image of Resilience

Standing about 150 yards away from the flag raising was Thomas Franklin, a photographer for The Bergen Record of Passaic, New Jersey.

He saw the firefighters’ actions, raised his camera and made an image that captured what is now one of the iconic moments of the day; the 9/11 flag proudly flying despite attempts to destroy it.

“It said something to me about the strength of the American people and of these firemen having to battle the unimaginable,” he added in that 2014 interview.

“As soon as I shot it, I realized the similarity of the famous image of the Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima.”

The iconic flag raising at Iwo Jima, as compared to the one at Ground Zero.

One Noble Marine

Five hours later the flag disappeared.

Thirteen years later, on November 3, 2014, a flag collector in Everett, Washington was watching a History Channel special on the missing 9/11 flag. 

As he did so, he saw the black electrical tape holding the two lengths of rope – the halyard – together.

That’s when he began to realize that he possessed the lost flag.

He recalled how in 2006 a friend had given him a grocery bag with two flags inside.  The first he put in a show box; the smaller and second banner he stored in a trunk for about six years before placing it in a freezer in a plastic bag.

“By the description given on the show, I had that sickening feeling inside that this flag must be the one,” the flag collector recalled in Daily Herald in a 2016 article by Diana Hefley.

“It also had a burnt rubber smell to it and a very strong energy about it, like a battle flag.”

After talking with his wife, the man decided to take the 9/11 flag to a fire station and turn it in. 

When he did, he only said he was “Brian” and that he was a Marine veteran.  He then walked out the door.

“I told them I just wanted to give it back to the people of New York City and its rightful owner.”

Subsequent tests confirmed that the flag was the one captured in the historic image as it was raised by the three firefighters.

Meanwhile, the Everett Police Department began its own investigation.


Two Detectives

Detectives James Massingale and Mike Atwood quietly began to look for the man who had returned the flag. 

They released a sketch to the media; they studied surveillance tape along the street leading up to the fire station; they tested the plastic bag for genetic clues. 

They could not find their man.


The Unknown Becomes Known

On Tuesday, September 8, 2016, Brian Browne learned that the flag he had turned into the fire department two years earlier had been turned over to the National September 11 Memorial Museum.

He also learned that Detectives Massingale and Atwood had been looking for him.

That’s when Browne decided to return to the fire station where he had left the 9/11 flag to identify himself. The firefighters contacted the police; Atwood responded.

“My motivation was to return what I thought was lost property and now to come forward with the actual events for the historical record,” Browne said.


Observing the Day

Today is one of remembrance and resilience, one on which to observe a moment of silence on behalf of all those lost on 9/11 – and to remember McWilliams’ comment that the flag was and remains a beacon of hope.

Read about the Spec Ops airmen who marched 830 miles for their fallen brothers.


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