You know the photo. On September 11, 2001, three firefighters raised an American flag above the rubble at Ground Zero. One hundred feet away, photographer Thomas Franklin snapped a shot for the Bergen Record that, a day later, would be seen around the world, providing a ray of hope in a moment of darkness. But guess what? Today, that famous flag is missing. And it's not the only piece of history that's been taken.
Where'd the flag go? You can help us find out.
It began with firefighter Dan McWilliams. He's the one who first saw the flag hanging from the back of a yacht docked near Ground Zero. It was McWilliams's idea to raise the flag on the flagpole. A simple and brilliant notion. From there, McWilliams, along with firefighters George Johnson and Billy Eisengrein, hoisted the 3x5 flag on the afternoon of 9/11 as photographer Franklin took his famous picture.
In the days that followed, the Associated Press picked up the photo, then it was on the cover of Newsweek, then on a U.S. postage stamp. Indeed, after 9/11, the flag become so famous, New York City Hall requested it for a massive ceremony at Yankee Stadium.
On September 23, at the stadium, the flag was signed by Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Gov. George Pataki, and other top officials, then raised in front of 20,000 people to commemorate the victims of 9/11. From there, the flag was given to the Navy, so it could be raised on ships heading to war in Afghanistan. The flag then traveled the world, flying high at countless ceremonies before finally returning to New York City in early 2012.
So when did the flag go missing? It was after a Greek-American couple, Spiro Kopelakis and Shirley Dreifus, announced that they were the owners of the original flag -- it was their yacht, the Star of America -- that was docked at a marina near Ground Zero.
This patriotic couple didn't demand the flag for themselves. They wanted to ensure that it was displayed in a museum for everyone to see. But when they borrowed the flag for a charity event to honor firefighters, they realized the sad truth: The famous flag was the wrong size. It wasn't the 3x5 flag that was on the back of their boat on 9/11. And the three firefighters all agreed, it wasn't the 3x5 flag that they'd raised in the famous photograph. What's worse, this imposter flag bears the signatures of the city officials who signed it at Yankee Stadium. In other words, the flag that was raised at Yankee Stadium and then sent around the world? That was not the original flag!
So what happened to the real 9/11 flag? To this day, no one knows. We're trying to change that as we launch the TV show Lost History, premiering Friday, October 31 at 10 p.m. EST on H2, and offer a reward of up to $10,000 if you help us find this famous flag.
A few years ago, a new clue emerged: On the night of 9/11, a New York police officer was shooting surveillance footage at Ground Zero. In this footage, at 10:30 p.m., the famous flagpole from the photo is bare. The flag is already gone, meaning that it had already been taken down within five hours of the iconic photo.
To this day, New York City has no leads, nor does the FDNY. Some experts suggest the real flag was misplaced at Ground Zero in the days after 9/11. Others suggest it was stolen. Others guess it may have been used to cover the body of a slain first responder and therefore could be stored in a morgue.
All we know for sure is that the real flag came down from the flagpole the night of 9/11, and a different flag was raised 12 days later at Yankee Stadium.
Why does it matter? It's our history. These are our stories. And now, we need your help. If you know something, go to History.com and file a tip. Help us find our lost history.
Brad Meltzer is the #1 New York Times bestselling thriller writer of The Inner Circle. His non-fiction children's books include I Am Amelia Earhart, I Am Abraham Lincoln, and I Am Rosa Parks. His new TV show, Brad Meltzer's Lost History debuts on Friday, October 31 at 10pm EST on H2.