In March, Loudoun School Board Chairman John A. Andrews II purchased an American flag on eBay for $25,000.
Yesterday, he burned it.
His was neither a protest nor an act of disrespect. Andrews said he organized the torching to end the controversy over the banner's authenticity.
This wasn't just any American flag. Depending on whom you ask, the nylon flag with white stitching either did or did not fly at the Pentagon when it was attacked on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
But no one is sure.
Andrews knew the flag's authenticity was in question when he made his winning online bid. Still, he thought it would be fitting to donate the flag to the new Newton-Lee Elementary School in Ashburn, which opens Monday and is named for Christopher C. Newton of Ashburn and D.C. Lee of Leesburg, who were passengers on American Airlines Flight 77, which hit the Pentagon.
But Andrews said it didn't take long for him to rethink his decision, largely crediting Sept. 11 families who were unhappy that an alleged artifact from the attack's aftermath was auctioned. Such a sale, they said, was morally wrong and would set a precedent for profiteers.
"Since the purchase of this flag, the controversy over its legitimacy has continued," Andrews said. "For the victims' families and the community as a whole, it's a small price to pay to put the issue to rest."
Yesterday, Andrews hosted a heavily choreographed retirement ceremony for the flag on the grass behind the offices of his company, Andrews Community Investment Corp., in Ashburn.
Aided by two Boy Scouts and the Loudoun County Boy Scout commissioner, Andrews helped hold the flag taut as the stars were cut from the stripes and the banner was dissected into four pieces.
"The flag didn't do anything wrong," said Commissioner Tom Noon, dressed in his Scouting uniform. "It deserved to be treated with dignity and respect." The disposal followed one of several methods outlined in Scout protocol, Noon said.
One by one, the nylon sections were tossed into a fire erupting from a metal drum filled with oak logs.
The Boy Scouts performed patriotic oratory. Flames spilled onto the scorched grass, and in a few minutes, the flag dissolved into the pyre.
The flag flap began in March, soon after David Nicholson of Orange, Va., made national headlines with his story: Sick with kidney cancer, he sought to sell the flag on eBay to buoy his family's financial future.
Nicholson had owned an auction house and said he got the flag in 2002 from a buddy who worked construction at the Pentagon and who said the flag was flying atop one of his company's cranes there Sept. 11.
But rather than sell the flag, Nicholson made a giant case to show it off and lent it to groups for viewing. Later that year, he and his treasure were featured on CNN. Nicholson said he would never have sold the flag if he hadn't fallen ill last year.
When the flag was auctioned on eBay on March 4, bidders went wild, offering dozens of startlingly high bids. Nicholson was on his way to selling it for more than $371,000 when the bottom dropped out: The construction company where his friend worked disputed the flag's provenance. Company officials said they had neither a crane nor a flag at the Pentagon on Sept. 11. Other workers on the scene stepped forward to make the same claim.
Spooked, the flag's winning bidder refused to pay.
But Nicholson was undaunted. Certain the flag's story was bona fide, he auctioned it again. Andrews was the only bidder.
In the end, everyone seemed satisfied with the outcome -- except Nicholson. Contacted at his home in Orange earlier this week, Nicholson denounced the banner's then-pending destruction as wrong and suggested that he could perhaps buy it back.
"It's bad burning that flag," Nicholson said. "After all that flag's been through, to destroy it now is just awful."
Andrews said the $25,000 he paid for the flag was worth it to put the debate to rest.Tom Noon, district commissioner for the Loudoun Boy Scouts, and Loudoun School Board Chairman John A. Andrews II , watch the flag's stripes burn.Noon and wife Lou, unit commissioner for the Loudoun Boy Scouts, prepare the flag to be burned by cutting off an edge.