Brian Browne stands at his home Tuesday in Everett. Browne found the Ground Zero flag and turned it in to an Everett fire station in 2014. “I took care of it. It was never dishonored or flown or anything,” said Browne. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Brian Browne stands at his home Tuesday in Everett. Browne found the Ground Zero flag and turned it in to an Everett fire station in 2014. “I took care of it. It was never dishonored or flown or anything,” said Browne. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Mystery man who turned in 9/11 flag steps forward, explains

EVERETT — The mystery has been solved of how an iconic U.S. flag raised at ground zero ended up in Everett.

The man who dropped off the flag in 2014 at the Everett Fire Station on Rucker Avenue stepped forward earlier this month, providing answers that had stumped Everett police detectives for nearly two years.

Brian Browne, 45, was checking the weather forecast on his cellphone Sept. 8 when he came across a story about the flag being found in Everett. Police here, he learned, had turned over the flag to a curator from the National September 11 Memorial Museum. The flag was unveiled at a ceremony that same day.

The story said that the detectives had researched the flag’s history, had it analyzed by a ground zero expert and even had its hardware tested for DNA.

The flag is believed to be the same that three New York firefighters raised hours after terrorists crashed jetliners into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. A photojournalist captured the moment, and his photograph became a symbol of resiliency and patriotism after thousands lost their lives in the deadliest terror attack on American soil.

The firefighters took the 3-foot by 5-foot flag from the Star of America yacht moored in the Hudson River. They raised it using electrical tape to bind together two lengths of rope. Five hours later it was missing.

The online story, Browne read, also said that Everett police detectives James Massingale and Mike Atwood had been looking for him since he left the fire station in 2014.

“The story broke to news outlets nationally and internationally. I was anxious about the search and asked my wife what I should do,” Browne wrote in a statement. “We thought it would be safe to go back to the same fire station where I returned the flag. So I reluctantly drove there and talked to a different staff of firemen. They were slightly shocked ….”

Firefighters contacted police and Atwood finally came face to face with the man who’d only been known to him as “Brian” for nearly two years.

Browne, who owns a landscape design business with his wife, retraced the flag’s journey as it had been told to him.

The flag had changed hands several times before coming into his possession, he said.

Browne was told that the flag had come from a New York City couple. The man, possibly a city employee, was a collector. When he died, his wife returned to Washington state with the flag. The woman met up with a childhood friend, who might have lived in Stanwood, and gave her and her husband a box of items, including the flag. That couple reportedly gave Browne’s friend, a collector, the box, including the flag and two other larger flags.

Browne explained to Atwood that his friend had invited him to a Veteran’s Day celebration in 2006. He asked Browne to look at some of the items that the couple had passed along to him. There was a grocery bag with three flags inside. The bag was labeled, “9/11/2001 flags,” Browne said. They unfurled a 3-foot by 5-foot flag and “all the ropes dropped out with its hardware still intact and clipped to the grommets.”

His friend asked Browne if he still collected flags. “He sarcastically gave me 2 flags … in honor of my ‘many years of military service,’ in which I had only served 5 months,” Browne wrote.

Browne collects military memorabilia. His interest, he said Tuesday, stems from his family’s ties to the armed forces. His great-grandfather served in World War I and his grandfather was a gunner and pilot in World War II and Korea, he said.

Browne put the bigger cotton flag in a shadowbox and stored the smaller flag in a Jo-Ann Fabric bag. He kept the bag with other memorabilia in a trunk for about six years. He later put the flag in a freezer with his collection of wool WWII flags.

Browne explained that on Nov. 3, 2014, he watched a History Channel special that featured the ground zero flag and talked about its disappearance in 2001.

“I had no idea the flag was missing,” Browne wrote. “I then ran downstairs to the freezer, ran back upstairs, laid the flag out on the floor, and then put the picture on television on pause and tried to compare.”

He noticed similarities in the halyard and the black electrical tape on the rope.

“By the description given on the show, I had that sickening feeling inside that this flag must be the one. It also had a burnt rubber cement smell to it and a very strong energy about it, like a battle flag,” Browne wrote. “I then told my wife my findings and we both concluded that I needed to return it.

“I decided to take it to Fire Station No. 1 here in Everett, WA. just to make sure I wasn’t going to be potentially arrested for possessing a national treasure.”

After a sleepless night of worry, Browne set out for the fire station, packing the flag in its Jo-Ann Fabric bag. He rang the doorbell. He told his story.

Browne tried to show the two firefighters the iconic flag on his cellphone to compare against the one he’d just handed over. The picture wasn’t clear enough. A firefighter pulled up the image on a tablet.

“At that moment I was absolutely sure this was the 9/11 Ground Zero flag,” Browne wrote. “We just stopped talking for a minute, and I turned white as a ghost and wanted to leave. I told them I just wanted to give it back to the people of New York City and its rightful owner.”

He didn’t leave a phone number. He told the firefighters his name was Brian and he lived in Everett. He walked out the door.

“I’m a pretty regular person. I’ve never been in front of law enforcement. I was worried the FBI was going to show up on my door,” he said.

Massingale and Atwood were assigned the case. They worked in secrecy. The department wanted to keep the flag protected and also wanted the detectives to have the room to investigate.

The detectives made several attempts to locate Browne. They released his sketch to media. Police said they were looking for a man who had dropped off some property. They didn’t reveal exactly what.

The detectives scoured all surveillance footage available from businesses along Rucker Avenue and from city buses. They tested the Jo-Ann Fabric bag for genetic clues.

They also focused their efforts on the flag. Bill Schneck, a scientist with the Washington State Patrol crime lab, conducted a chemical analysis of trace evidence from the flag and halyard. He couldn’t declare it was the same flag and halyard, but he said the debris was consistent with dust from ground zero.

A second mate on the Star of America viewed the flag and halyard and said she was 80 percent sure the flag was from the yacht. She was more certain about the halyard.

Another Everett detective took hundreds of photos of the flag for comparison. Everett police were told that a former FBI agent and art fraud expert said that priceless paintings have received less scrutiny than the flag did in Everett.

The flag and halyard were quietly turned over to the museum in August.

Atwood and Massingale attended the ceremony earlier this month as the flag was unveiled in a new display. They didn’t know if they’d ever learn “Brian’s” identity or how the flag made it to Everett.

“I find people. That’s what I do. It’s great to have this closure,” Atwood said. “He just wanted to do the right thing — twice.”

Browne told the detective that he never paid money for the flag and if there was a reward, he’d want it to go to the September 11 Memorial Museum, Atwood wrote in his report.

“It was an honor to have it in my house. I guess I’m glad it was me versus someone else. Maybe they would have sold it or pinned it up on a wall. I took care of it. It was never dishonored or flown or anything,” the Everett man said Tuesday.

Browne explained that he’d kept the flag in the freezer to maintain its condition. He’d used some green floral wire to keep the rope from fraying. That same kind of wire is still on the rope of the flag on display in New York. Browne also told Atwood he put a small amount of glue on the end of the electrical tape to reattach it.

The detective collected the man’s DNA to compare against the sample recovered from the electrical tape. It could take months to get the results of the test back.

“In my mind, Brian Browne seems to be a humble citizen and has not requested any financial gain from the incident, has not sought out any attention and requested that I add to this report that he hopes that his semi- anonymity and privacy be respected,” Atwood wrote.

Browne and his wife are still in disbelief that the flag was in their house for eight years. He’s never been to New York. Browne has pored over the photographs of the flag since it was put on display at the museum. A trip there probably isn’t in his family’s budget but “it’d be nice one day to visit an old friend,” he said.

In his statement to police, Browne explained his reasons for coming forward. “My motivation was to return what I thought was lost property and now to come forward with the actual events for the historical record.

“My only wish is that it never leaves its beautiful custom case. It has too much sentimental value, and in my opinion is a very sacred piece to be shared and shown at the museum, never to leave hallowed ground.”

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; hefley@heraldnet.com.

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