Iconic 9/11 flag: The man who turned it in

Posted at 7:05 AM, Sep 29, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-29 07:05:03-04

For eight years, Brian Browne preserved an American flag in a storage trunk and the freezer of his Everett, Washington, home — unaware it was a piece of history.

The unknown treasure was the iconic flag that three New York City firefighters hoisted above the ruins of the World Trade Center after the 9/11 attacks — a defiant act captured in an indelible newspaper photo. The flag disappeared, but resurfaced in 2014 in Everett.

The man who returned it to a local fire station only said then that he was once a Marine, and his name was “Brian.” Then he left.

Browne, 46, a flag collector, is revealing himself and the tale of how the flag, which was wrapped in a grocery paper bag, ended up in his possession, nearly 2,900 miles away.

Everett police confirmed Browne’s identity on Tuesday.

“It’s just about being a good Samaritan. If something doesn’t belong to you, you give it back,” Browne said in a phone interview Wednesday from Washington.

He told CNN affiliate KIRO in Seattle: “It’s from hallowed ground ….”

Last month, the flag was displayed near the entrance of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, built on the site of ground zero. The flag was believed to have been “either, misplaced, stolen or secreted away by unknown forces in the chaos of ground zero,” according to Michael Tucker, who produced, wrote and directed the 2013 CNN film “The Flag,” with his wife, Petra Epperlein.

Consider the tale of the missing flag now solved.

In 2004, an unidentified woman brought several flags and military items back to Washington state from New York City after her husband’s death from either pneumonia or some other lung ailment, Browne told Everett police, according to a police report. Her husband may have been a New York City employee, police said.

Two years later, the woman gave the items to a couple in Washington, who passed them along to Browne’s friend, who also lived in Washington.

Around Veterans Day in 2006, Browne’s friend gave him two flags, which included the 9/11 flag, in a bag with “9/11/2001 flags” written on a 1 ½ inch masking tape.

“It was about the size of a big burrito and it had the ropes wrapped around really super tight, like it’s been that way for super long time,” Browne, who owns a landscape design and irrigation company, told KIRO.

The iconic 3 feet x 5 feet flag had all the hardware still intact and was clipped to the grommets, Browne wrote in a letter to police.

He put it in a bag and kept it in a storage trunk for six years, he said. Then he transferred it to a freezer bag and stored it in the freezer for the past two years to better preserve it, he said.

In November 2014, he saw a documentary on the History channel that referenced the missing 9/11 flag, with black electrical tape on the flag’s halyard and a small U-shape metal piece on the lower grommet.

“I had that sickening feeling inside that this flag must be the one,” he wrote in his letter to police. “It also had a burnt rubber/cement smell to it and a very strong energy about it, like a battle flag,”

Browne turned it into the Everett fire department, where his suspicions were confirmed. “I told them, I just wanted it to be given back to the people of New York City and its rightful owner,” Browne wrote.

He didn’t want any publicity, police said then. But Everett detectives wanted to find him and released a sketch in a local newspaper.

Forensic tests later matched the flag.

As this year’s Sept. 11 commemoration neared, Browne saw news reports in Washington that the flag had been found in Everett. He said he came forward to “fill in the blanks and put it in the historical record” of how the flag ended up in his possession.

“It’s a happy accident,” he said.

Iconic flags in this nation’s history, such as the flag that flew over Fort McHenry during the War of 1812, were beacons, with their own story, said Browne.

“This flag is one of those type of flags, and it will have a story behind it now,” he said.