Returning the Ground Zero flag: How detectives solved the mystery of the missing Stars and Stripes

The American flag, raised by New York City firefighters at Ground Zero shortly after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, was discovered years later in Wash.


By Steve Paxton

The famous flag raised at Ground Zero on September 12, 2001, originally flew from the yacht, Star of America, moored in a marina near the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers.

New York City firefighter Dan McWilliams cut the flag from the yacht and he and fellow firefighters, George Johnson and Billy Eisengrein, raised it onto a pole emerging from the rubble.

Detectives enlisted the help of Washington State Patrol Forensic Scientist William Schneck to examine particulate debris on the flag and compare it with known debris samples collected at the World Trade Center shortly after the terrorist attacks. (Photo/Steve Paxton)
Detectives enlisted the help of Washington State Patrol Forensic Scientist William Schneck to examine particulate debris on the flag and compare it with known debris samples collected at the World Trade Center shortly after the terrorist attacks. (Photo/Steve Paxton)

Thomas Franklin, who worked as a photographer for New Jersey newspaper, The Bergen Record, captured the iconic photograph of the three New York City firefighters raising the flag at Ground Zero. The photograph of the flag being raised over Ground Zero went on to embody American patriotism and resolve in the face of terrorism.

By the next day, the flag turned up missing with very few clues as to its whereabouts.

The investigation begins

In the fall of 2014, a person simply identified as “Brian” dropped off a 3’x5’ American flag at an Everett, Washington, fire station. The flag and a halyard, neatly stored in a shopping bag, were carefully handed over to a firefighter.

Brian told firefighters he believed the flag was the same one famously raised by firefighters at Ground Zero shortly after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. In the excitement of taking custody of something potentially significant, Brian slipped away before anyone could identify him.

The fire department released the flag to the Everett Police Department and detectives Massingale and Atwood were assigned to investigate. They were charged with safeguarding the flag, determining if it was authentic and returning it to the rightful owner.

The first step was to identify and interview “Brian.”

Investigators canvassed the area around the fire station looking for surveillance video. Although there were several surveillance cameras near and around the firehouse, none captured footage of Brian coming or going from the area.

Several press releases and a sketch were eventually issued asking anyone with information about Brian to come forward. Two years would pass before Brian would finally be located and interviewed.

As the investigation continued, detectives carefully examined the flag and halyard. Several light stains were plainly visible in several places on the flag. The halyard appeared to have been hastily made with rope and electrical tape. Over several days, hundreds of photographs of the flag and halyard were captured. These photographs would later be used in a photographic comparison.

A debris match

Meanwhile, detectives enlisted the help of Washington State Patrol Forensic Scientist William Schneck to examine particulate debris on the flag and compare it with known debris samples collected at the World Trade Center shortly after the terrorist attacks. Schneck later concluded that debris and particulate matter he analyzed on the flag were “consistent in content and correct percentages” to debris and particulate matter collected at Ground Zero.

The Ground Zero flag in custody of the Everett Police Department. (Photo/Steve Paxton)
The Ground Zero flag in custody of the Everett Police Department. (Photo/Steve Paxton)

This was a huge break in the investigation. The soil and debris comparison confirmed that the flag had very likely been at Ground Zero.

Photographic comparison

I was asked to compare the flag and halyard in our custody with the famous photograph taken by Thomas Franklin. A photographic comparison looks for class (general) and individualizing (unique) characteristics between two similar-looking people or objects. In this case, I would be comparing the flag and halyard in our custody to the iconic photograph taken at Ground Zero.

We reached out to the custodian of the photograph and learned that Thomas Franklin captured 24 photographs the afternoon the flag was raised. Many of these photographs have never been made available to the public. The custodian provided copies of all of the photographs to assist us in our investigation.

Having access to all 24 photographs taken by Thomas Franklin allowed us to examine characteristics of the flag and halyard from several different angles as it was being hoisted at Ground Zero.

Side-by-side comparison of the halyard with a photo taken by Thomas Franklin at Ground Zero. (Photo/Steve Paxton)
Side-by-side comparison of the halyard with a photo taken by Thomas Franklin at Ground Zero. (Photo/Steve Paxton)

The halyard that accompanied the flag is very unique. It consists of several sections of 5-8 mm rope wrapped with black electrical tape along with two swivel snap hooks (attached to two ends of the rope). It appeared that the halyard had been hurriedly made and is obviously one-of-a-kind.

After examining the flag and halyard and comparing them to the photographs taken by Thomas Franklin, I found at least six class (general) and six individualizing (unique) characteristics in common between the flag and halyard in our custody and the one seen in photographs and video.

In video captured of the flag-raising sequence, one of the firefighters can be seen wrapping something 16-18 times around the halyard shortly after it was attached to the flag. We believe this is the electrical tape used to hold the halyard together as the upper section of the halyard is wrapped 16 times with electrical tape.

Brian tells his story

Near the end of our investigation, Brian learned that detectives were looking for him and came forward. During several interviews Brian explained he is a military memorabilia collector. Brian told us in November 2006 he met with a friend who had acquired several boxes containing military memorabilia.

Knowing that Brian is a veteran and flag collector, his friend showed him three American flags that came stored in the boxes. Brian described two of the flags as being large and the third as much smaller and wound tightly in a ball with rope. Brian’s friend gave him all three flags. After taking the flags home, Brian neatly folded and stored them away.

Although he didn’t know it at the time, Brian later realized that the third flag, wrapped tightly by the halyard, was the Ground Zero flag.

In the fall of 2014 Brian learned that the Ground Zero flag was missing while watching a documentary about September 11 on television. The documentary showed pictures of the flag and halyard. After seeing black tape on the halyard, Brian pulled the flag and halyard out and compared them to the images on TV. At that point Brian realized he may be in possession of the iconic Ground Zero flag. A short time later, Brian drove to a nearby fire station and turned the flag and halyard over to firefighters.

Brian had the Ground Zero flag and halyard in his possession since November 2006. Throughout several interviews, Brian was extremely cooperative and instrumental in helping us document the flag’s history after it turned up missing.

After two years of investigation including a soil sample analysis, photographic and video comparisons, peer review, and interviews with witnesses, we concluded that the flag and halyard in our custody were very likely at Ground Zero.

Throughout the investigation, detectives remained in contact with Shirley Dreifus, the sole remaining owner of the Star of America yacht. Her husband had since passed away. After the flag and halyard were authenticated, Shirley Dreifus and Chubb Insurance (insurers of the flag) graciously agreed to release both to the 9/11 Memorial Museum to be cared for and placed on permanent display to the public.

Former NYPD cop returns the flag to NYC

Now retired Everett police officer Eddie Golden worked for the New York Police Department during the terrorist attacks. He assisted with rescue operations within the perimeter of Ground Zero for nine months. Several years after his involvement with September 11, 2001, Officer Golden retired from the NYPD and came to work for the Everett Police Department.

The Ground Zero flag and halyard on display at the 9/11 Memorial Museum. (Photo/Steve Paxton)
The Ground Zero flag and halyard on display at the 9/11 Memorial Museum. (Photo/Steve Paxton)

Having such a close connection to the events surrounding Ground Zero, Officer Golden was invited to be present as the flag and halyard were carefully prepared and packaged to be transported to the 9/11 Memorial Museum. Wearing latex gloves, Officer Golden held the flag close to his face and took a deep breath. With tears in his eyes, he turned to Detective Massingale and remarked, “It smells just like I remember it.”

The Everett Police Department accomplished the three main goals of the investigation, which were safeguarding the flag, determining if it was authentic and returning it to the rightful owner. The flag and halyard were safely returned home to New York City and are now on display at the 9/11 Memorial Museum.


About the author

Steve Paxton has been a police officer for 23 years. He is currently a detective assigned to the Forensic Investigations Unit at the Everett (Wash.) Police Department. His primary responsibilities include recovering and analyzing surveillance video, examining mobile devices, critical incident photography and managing the department’s digital forensics lab. Steve can be reached on LinkedIn.

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