NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Updated: Thursday, September 8, 2016, 8:26 PM
The symbol of America’s enduring resilience on 9/11 has finally returned home.
The historic American flag raised by firefighters above the World Trade Center rubble hours after the terror attacks was brought back to lower Manhattan Thursday, days before the 15th anniversary of 9/11.
Hours after the buildings collapsed, firefighters spotted the flag on the Star of America, a yacht docked at the World Financial Center.
The firefighters — George Johnson, Billy Eisengrein and Dan McWilliams — hoisted it on a lanyard. The moment was captured by photographer Thomas Franklin and instantly became one of the most enduring images on one of the darkest days in American history.
But the flag was changed out for another the following day — and the iconic Stars and Stripes seen around the world somehow got lost amid the chaotic search for survivors and the ensuing cleanup effort.
The U.S. flag famously hoisted on 9/11, long lost and recently recovered, now at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.
Its location remained a mystery until Oct., 31, 2014, when the banner became the focus of a television show called “Brad Meltzer’s Lost History.”
Four days after that episode aired on the History Channel, a man who identified himself as a Marine veteran who had been deployed in the Middle East handed over the original flag to firefighters in Everett, Wash.
The Marine, who just gave his first name as “Brian,” said a 9/11 widow had given the flag to a worker at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That unidentified federal staffer had apparently given it to “Brian,” according to the man’s account.
“I never thought in a million years that four days after we told the story (of) the missing Ground Zero flag that someone would turn it in,” Meltzer said Thursday.
The History Channel and officials in Washington State conducted a slew of forensic tests to confirm the flag’s authenticity.
“The forensic part is actually the easy part,” Meltzer recalled. “As our investigators explained to us, 9/11 dust is like a fingerprint. Because it’s made up of not just buildings, but it’s made up of jet fuel, it’s made up of human remains. The only way to recreate 9/11 dust is to recreate 9/11.”
Final verification of the flag’s authenticity came from analyzing Franklin’s iconic picture. That showed that the rope used for raising and lowering it was identical to the one in the photo.
It remains unclear how the flag ended up nearly 3,000 miles away in Everett.
9/11 Memorial President Joe Daniels discusses the flag on Thursday.
After it was confirmed to be genuine, the flag was given back to the owners of the yacht, Shirley Dreifus and her late husband, Spiros Kopelakis.
“I was speechless,” Dreifus said. “It meant a lot to me. I met my husband in the World Trade Center. We lived downtown. I spent most of my life working downtown. And I spent a lot of my career working in the World Trade Center.”
“It was a symbol of hope to the country,” she added. “But it was a symbol of hope to me, too. And truthfully, that day we did lose everything.”
Dreifus donated it to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum as part of a commemoration of the 15-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. On Thursday, museum officials unveiled the flag — encased in glass — on the second floor, a prominent spot on the center’s top floor.
Shirley Dreifus, the flag’s original owner, at the musuem on Thursday.
“In a museum of deeply powerful artifacts, this newest artifact is among the most deeply powerful,” said Joe Daniels, the museum’s CEO.
“The raising of this flag restored some humanity. It restored some hope,” he continued. “The whole idea of this flag not being in this museum — having this a mystery for years and years and years — it just felt like a hole in the history of this site.”
Everett police, meanwhile, still want the public’s help to find the mysterious “Brian” so they can talk with him about how he got his hands on the flag.