By: Anna Crane
Five years ago today, on Dec. 1, 2001, Harry Benson, on assignment for Vanity Fair, photographed the crew of the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier displaying the American flag featured in the iconic Thomas Franklin 9/11 photo of three firemen raising that banner at Ground Zero in New York.
The truth, apparently, is that the flag in the original photo, taken by Franklin of The Record of Bergen County, N.J., had gone missing before the aircraft carrier picture — and numerous other displays of the flag, from ball parks to official ceremonies.
?I just hope someone comes forward with it at some point,? Shirley Dreifus, its original owner, told E&P today. She has even started a Web site (www.findthe911flag.com) and has considered offering a reward to get the flag back.
?We?re just trying to do a few things to get someone to come forward,? she says. ?It?s an important piece of history, and people tend to forget things over time. We don?t want to forget the lessons of Sept. 11.? Dreifus, says that the flag photographed by Benson is much larger than the one that originally flew on her yacht near the World Trade Center site and was hoisted up a fire pole on Sept 11.
Franklin tells E&P that it?s become almost ?laughable? that the flag has been missing so long, and that another has been put in its place.
?That picture is a serious picture that means a lot to a lot of people,? he says. ?I have the highest respect for what that picture means to other people, and it?s upsetting that the flag is missing.?
Franklin feels it is entirely possible that the flag simply was lost, and that even if someone claims to have it, it would be almost impossible to determine if the flag was the original.
What has been waved at baseball games, signed by dignitaries, and called the original flag from that photo is actually another, claims Vanity Fair’s David Friend, author of the current book “Watching The World Change: The Stories Behind the Images of 9/11.”
As Franklin?s photo grew fame around the world, so did the flag’s display, and when Dreifus voiced her concern about the mix up, Friend writes in his book, an official inquiry was ordered by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. But as far as Dreifus knows, the flag has not been found. (The FDNY could not be reached by E&P for comment.)
That flag and the Frankin photograph was printed over 250 million times on newsstands, says Friend, and became a symbol of American hope immediately after the attacks on Sept. 11. The Benson photo taken five years ago also gained wide exposure.
?The flag represents what was so important in that picture,? says Friend. ?The flag seems to represent all flags that themselves are symbols of the national unity and the positives of our democracy. And so to find it, somehow redeems some of the notions it represents.?
Theories about where the missing flag might be have flown around since its disappearance, ranging from theft to misplacement, and even that it has been hidden away for safekeeping.
Friend?s book narrows it down to the three or four days following September 11, and offers several explanations as to where it might be, but no final answer.
But Friend retains hope that Dreifus, who claims there is an unspecified distinguishing mark on her flag, will be able to help identify the original.
To find the original flag is important, he says, and is like visiting the Alamo or Gettysburg.
?You want to see this symbol and get the same chills, the same feelings, and the same lessons echoing that you feel when you see the actual banner that inspired Francis Scott Key or one of the actual banners that Betsy Ross first made. I?m a sentimentalist in this regard,? he says.
Franklin too, retains some of the sentimentality that surrounds the flag and photograph. Even five years after he shot the now-famous moment, he still hears about the importance that photo has held for people.
?Just yesterday, I had someone come up who recognized me and say how much that photo meant to them with tears in their eyes,? he says.
As much as Franklin wants to see the good in people and hopes that no one actually stole the original flag, he also hopes that someone will eventually come forth with it. If it?s simply lost, that would be the saddest option of all, he says, because then ?we would never really know what happened to it.?