In harsh times, symbols of hope and courage can attain disproportionate importance. After the 11 September attacks five years ago, one that quickly emerged for dazed Americans was a small stars and stripes flag raised by three fireman on a slanting pole atop the rubble of the collapsed Twin Towers.
Today, however, mystery has attached itself to the flag. It has gone missing, and may have vanished within days of first being raised, meaning that the flag that did the rounds of ceremonies in the months after the attack was an imposter.
The original was snatched by fireman Dan McWilliams from a yacht moored on the Hudson River. The flag came to represent valour amid the horror. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani carried it to a Yankees baseball game two weeks later, it was reproduced on a stamp, and the US Navy flew it from an aircraft carrier. But when Mr McWilliams was invited the following April to a ceremony that featured the flag, he realised it was too big. He kept quiet but later in 2002, the owner of the yacht, Shirley Dreifus, asked to borrow the flag for a fundraiser and instantly saw it had been switched.
Today, there seems little chance that the smaller flag will ever turn up. "It's a piece of history," Ms Dreifus told USA Today. "I don't think the average citizen knows it's missing."Reuse content