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Have you seen it? Iconic 9/11 flag's whereabouts still a mystery

By Eliott C. McLaughlin, CNN
updated 9:48 AM EDT, Fri September 6, 2013
Firefighters George Johnson, Dan McWilliams and Billy Eisengrein raise a flag at ground zero in New York after the terror attacks on September 11, 2001. The scene was immortalized by photographer Thomas E. Franklin. The image has been widely reproduced in the decade since it was first published. <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2013/09/01/world/gallery/iconic-images/index.html'>View 25 of history's most iconic photographs.</a> Firefighters George Johnson, Dan McWilliams and Billy Eisengrein raise a flag at ground zero in New York after the terror attacks on September 11, 2001. The scene was immortalized by photographer Thomas E. Franklin. The image has been widely reproduced in the decade since it was first published. View 25 of history's most iconic photographs.
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Iconic image of 9/11 flag raising
Iconic image of 9/11 flag raising
Iconic image of 9/11 flag raising
Iconic image of 9/11 flag raising
Iconic image of 9/11 flag raising
Iconic image of 9/11 flag raising
Iconic image of 9/11 flag raising
Iconic image of 9/11 flag raising
Iconic image of 9/11 flag raising
Iconic image of 9/11 flag raising
Iconic image of 9/11 flag raising
Iconic image of 9/11 flag raising
Iconic image of 9/11 flag raising
Iconic image of 9/11 flag raising
Iconic image of 9/11 flag raising
Iconic image of 9/11 flag raising
Iconic image of 9/11 flag raising
Iconic image of 9/11 flag raising
Iconic image of 9/11 flag raising
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The flag that became the subject of an iconic 9/11 photo went missing after it was hoisted
  • Tips roll in after CNN Films' documentary "The Flag" airs, but none deemed viable
  • Possible sighting have come in Las Vegas, Houston, West Point and Oskaloosa, Iowa
  • Co-director says, "It's more than looking for a flag. It about looking for that feeling"

(CNN) -- It doesn't appear tracking down this piece of 9/11 history will be easy.

Tips have been rolling in, spurred by the CNN Films' production, "The Flag," a documentary about the flag that three New York firefighters hoisted above the World Trade Center rubble in the aftermath of the attack.

This particular version of Old Glory was 3 feet by 5 feet. Photos and video from the site suggest it went missing fewer than six hours after a photographer with a Bergen, New Jersey, newspaper captured the firefighters' deed in a photo that would become one of the most -- if not the most -- iconic images from tragedy.

Co-director Michael Tucker said he expects that as news of the film infiltrates the tight-knit communities of New York's firefighters, police officers, port authority workers and paramedics, more viable leads will come.

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"Once more people from that world see it, I think we're going to start learning a lot more," he said, adding that he and co-director Petra Epperlein examined more than 5,000 photos and viewed four days of television coverage from each of the networks during the documentary's production.

Viewers began sharing leads before the documentary aired Wednesday, as TV featured promos and CNN.com posted a preview. By Wednesday night, there were a collective 50 tips to CNN.com's landing page, an e-mail tip line and Twitter.

Only a dozen or so were credible.

Of course, there was the obligatory yahoo claiming aliens took it -- but there were more sober sightings as well.

A Florida woman said she saw it in the New York State Museum in Albany, while another viewer wondered whether a flag he'd seen at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point was the banner in question.

Other potential sightings came at Missouri's Fort Leonard Wood; NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston; the Escondido, California, Elks Lodge; and the hair and makeup department of the New York New York Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.

In one seemingly angry e-mail received before the documentary aired, a man using the name of a retired New York police lieutenant slammed the firefighters. He accused them of stealing the flag (the documentary explains how it was taken from a yacht docked near the trade center) and claimed the iconic photo was staged and that the firefighters absconded with the flag after the picture was taken.

"There had already been a few flags hoisted down at the site including the first flag to be hoisted by 2 officers from the NYPD," the tipster wrote. "Since the NYPD raised their flag in the immediate aftermath of the attack, there is still a ton of smoke and soot in the air, there are numerous rescue workers on scene ... several of whom are saluting. This is a much more original, natural, unrehearsed shot than the photo op taken much later."

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Old Glory: 'What makes us American'

The most credible tip, Tucker said, came from a man who said a lighting company in Oskaloosa, Iowa, that assisted with the 9/11 cleanup effort was in possession of the flag. But that flag turned out to be larger than the 9/11 flag, Tucker said.

Tucker's hunch is that the flag's disappearance involved nothing nefarious.

"Someone most likely saw it there and thought that's a dirty, tattered flag and said, 'I'm going to save that,' " he said. "It's going to be someone who either went there to volunteer with some specific skill or was a first responder.

"If anything, I think someone's intentions were very good."

While some tips are more feasible than others, Tucker says, "They're all legitimate because people have connections to these objects, to these symbols."

And perhaps more important than finding the flag is providing this outlet for catharsis, Tucker said.

Many people have forgotten how they felt the day the towers came down.

With a war-weary nation now considering military action in Syria, Tucker believes discussing and searching for the 9/11 flag gives people an opportunity to revisit their emotions and "immerse themselves in the story of that day."

"It was the worst of days that somehow brought out the best in many Americans," he said. "It's more than looking for a flag. It's about looking for that feeling."

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