The US flag that three weary New York City firefighters hoisted above the wreckage of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, became an instant icon when a photo capturing the moment was published around the world and turned it into a symbol of the nation’s resilience after the shocking attacks.
According to a new documentary, that flag disappeared the night of September 11 and has never been seen again.
For 12 years, it was thought that the flag was removed from its makeshift flag pole at Ground Zero and appeared at a New York Yankees game before being flown atop the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt as it launched airstrikes on the Taliban in Afghanistan.
However, CNN documentary The Flag claims that the real Stars and Stripes from that memorable 9/11 photo has vanished – and has never been seen again in public since that tragic day.
Filmmakers Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein believe a first responder took down the flag and has been keeping it as a souvenir.
The 3-foot-by-5-foot flag, along with the mast, was taken from a boat docked near the World Trade Center by firefighters George Johnson, Dan McWilliams and Billy Eisengrein on that tragic morning.
When the original owners of the flag, Shirley Dreifus and Spiros Kopelakis, asked for it to be temporarily returned, the flag they were sent – the one that had been publicly autographed by Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Governor George Pataki at the Yankees game – turned out not to be their flag. It was much bigger.
“That’s not the flag that they raised on 9/11. The flag that went to Yankee Stadium, or was on the ship, could not have been the flag that was in the photograph,” Shirley Dreifus tells the filmmakers.
Shirley Dreifus and Spiros Kopelakis sent the “fake” flag back to City Hall, where that one has apparently been lost, as well.
Bergen County Record photographer Thomas Franklin took the iconic photos of the three FDNY firefighters raising the Stars and Bars above Ground Zero that afternoon.
Billy Eisengrein, the man pictured on the right in photo, said he and the other firefighters went straight back to work after hoisting the flag – there were still people trapped in the rubble.
“It was literally over in just a few minutes. We found a spot and raised the flag. The three of us looked at each other, we looked at the flag, and that was that,” he told the filmmakers.
“We just felt that we had other things that needed to be accomplished right then.”
Video obtained by the CNN camera crew from the night of September 11 shows that the flagpole was bare even then – meaning the famous Stars and Stripes flew just a few hours before it was taken down and spirited away.