EVERETT, Wash. – When Sgt. Mike Atwood of the Everett Police Department returned home from a graveyard shift at Snohomish County Jail on September 11, 2001, the last thing he expected was to be awakened by his family notifying him of the attacks on the world trade center.
He watched the towers fall on the television, speechless, and thought to himself, “The world will never be the same.” On that day, he never could have predicted that in 15 years he would honor the Americans who responded and fell, ultimately contributing to American history as a whole.
A year after the September 11 attacks, Mike Atwood joined the Everett Police Department, and in 2016, while working for the Major Crime Unit, his partner James Massingale was called to the captain’s office with an urgent matter. Atwood grew concerned after some time had gone by, wondering if a serious issue were at hand. When Massingale finally emerged, his face was stricken with pensiveness. Atwood began joking with him about being in trouble, asking what the meeting was about, but Massingale kept repeating he couldn’t talk about it.
A short time later, Massingale approached Atwood with a special case. An American flag had been turned in to the department that had possible ties to September 11.
Thomas E. Franklin’s iconic photo of three New York City firefighters erecting an American flag on a piece of the destroyed World Trade Center instantly became, and remains to this day, one of the most famous and identifiable images taken on that fateful day. But just five hours after that photo was taken, the flag went missing.
Brien Browne, former Marine Corps and collector of American historical artifacts, was watching the History Channel in his Everett home when his jaw dropped. The episode of Lost History revealed that the famous U.S. flag from Franklin’s photo – the flag raised and celebrated from Yankee Stadium to the Arabian Sea – was not the flag they thought it was. The program asked, if the flag sent all over the world were the wrong flag, where was the real flag? Browne knew the answer; it was upstairs in his collection.
Years previous, an unnamed New York man married an Everett woman and returned to New York City where the man had been hired as a first responder. The man responded to the call to the World Trade Center site on September 11, cut down an American flag after Franklin photographed it, folded it, and placed it in his pocket. He would eventually pass away from health problems directly linked to responding to the terror attacks. Alone and devastated, the man’s widow decided to return to her hometown of Everett to be closer to family, taking her husband’s possessions with her, and with them, the flag.
When she was finally able to relieve her deceased husband’s belongings, the woman gifted the flag to Browne’s friend, who then gifted it to Browne at a BBQ, noting his interest in American historical relics.
The doorbell rang at the Everett Fire Department Station 1 on Rucker Ave and 36th Street shortly after Browne realized what was in his possession. Knowing unexpected announcements such as these typically include medical emergencies, Everett Fire Fighters responded to the call with urgency only to see a man, who appeared healthy and in no harm, standing outside the station. The man held up a plastic Joanne Fabric and Craft bag to the confused firefighters and told them he had a piece of American history. The man was Browne.
The firefighters withdrew the flag, noticing it had ropes and electrical tape around it, removed them to give the flag a better look and put it back in the bag to give to administration.
During a discussion about the history of flags between Deputy Chief Everett PD and Assistant Fire Marshall from the Everett Fire Department, the fire marshall revealed that a flag had been turned in the previous day by a citizen, claiming to be the famous flag featured in Franklin’s iconic photo. Astonished, the Deputy Chief asked to see the artifact, which was in the fire marshall’s office, and immediately turned it in to the evidence room, assigning Massingale the case of verifying whether this mind-boggling claim held merit.
“Detective Massingale is a former Army ranger and an incredibly patriotic man. It was really fitting that he was assigned this case,” Atwood told the Lynnwood Times.
When Atwood and Massingale received the flag, they treated it as evidence from a crime scene and could not put the flag back together the way it was turned in. They took pictures of it, handled it with gloves, and began their investigation which would last the next two years. Atwood told the Lynnwood Times that visually it looked like a match, down to the number of wraps of electrical tape around the rope. The original flag from Franklin’s photo was taken from the yacht Star of America docked in the Hudson River and erected on a 20-foot pole found in the debris of the attacks with electrical tape and rope.
The two-year investigation was kept in high security with only a total of about four people ever knowing what was going on to avoid issues such as theft or tampering.
Detective Steve Paxton of the Washington State crime lab was brought in to conduct the forensics for authentication. When Atwood and Massingale approached Paxton’s supervisor about the case, a member of their office bumped into a computer desk which activated the monitor displaying Franklin’s photo as the background image. It was then when the importance of this case sunk in.
Analyzed by Bill Schkeck of the Spokane Washington State Patrol Crime Lab, the flag turned in by Browne was determined to be America’s missing flag. In his forensic report, the DNA of the FDNY firefighters that held it on September 11 along with the debris from the fallen World Trade Center towers were conclusive.
When the two Everett detectives held a meeting to discuss this finding, they invited in fellow Everett PD officer Edward Golden, who served with the NYPD during the September 11 attacks and was a first responder to the attacks. Golden walked to the flag, gripped it, and put it to his face, and said, “That’s the smell I remember; I will never forget that smell.”
“[Golden is] Probably the nicest person I’ve ever met. His name is Golden and he is pretty much that,” Atwood told the Lynnwood Times.
When the September 11 flag was folded for the last time in Everett, before the History Channel and Chub Insurance delivered it back to New York City, Golden was chosen to do the honors.
“Any American, and even non-Americans, have a belief and a feeling and a thought when they see an American flag. Everybody’s perception of that flag is different; everyone has had different experiences in this country . . . and that’s what I think every time I see an American flag,” Atwood told the Lynnwood Times.
To this day the September 11 flag is on display at the 9/11 museum in New York City.
“Flags are symbols – symbols of hope, symbols of strength, symbols of us. But on this journey, I’ve also realized that flags are mirrors, this flag especially. And when you look at it, you will see what you need, and you will see something about yourself,” Brad Melter, History Channel and host of the show Lost History, said.