Story Behind Iconic Image of Firemen Raising Flag During 9/11

Of all the photos shot on Sept. 11, 2001, the one everyone remembers is Thomas E. Franklin’s. Lindy Washburn reports that the photo was first published in The Bergen Record on Sept. 12. The image of three firefighters hoisting a flag before the mountain of wreckage quickly traveled around the world and became a unifying emblem of hope.

It is easily one of the most widely reproduced images of the new millennium: Printed on 255 million postage stamps as a fund-raiser for emergency workers, sales generated more than $10 million.

Franklin took the picture at 5:01 p.m., shooting a series of photos from about 30 yards away. “I saw the firemen with the flag, and a flagpole wedged at an odd angle atop a pile of rubble about 15 feet high,” he says. “I waited, unsure what was happening. Just then the fireman in the center, Dan McWilliams, hoisted the flag up the pole. His colleagues, George Johnson and Billy Eisengrein, looked on. I pointed my camera and shot a burst of frames as the flag went up,” Franklin says.

It was over very quickly. He ran over to where they were, but the firefighters had climbed down and walked past him. Photographer and subjects never spoke. “I don’t think they had any idea that their spontaneous act of patriotism was being photographed.”

The firefighters gave their only interview about the photograph to The Record, two days after 9/11. “Everybody just needed a shot in the arm,” McWilliams said at that time. “Every pair of eyes that saw that flag got a little brighter.”

Franklin was not the only photographer to capture that instant, but his image endured. “Tom’s image — its succinctness and its compression of information in a small place — gives it an iconic nature,” says David Friend, an editor at Vanity Fair who wrote the book, “Watching the World Change,” about the images of 9/11.

The flagpole cuts across the frame, with the flag unfurling in the center and the figures below, to give the photo an elemental, triangular structure. The late afternoon light catches the bright colors of the flag and uniforms, giving them a sculptural quality against the ash-covered background.

The echo of Joe Rosenthal’s famous photo of Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima provides “extra resonance,” Friend says. On a day when so many images showed destruction, horror and grief, Franklin’s image stood out because of a different emotion.

“This was the one that presented a semblance of hope,” Friend wrote. “Standing on the mount where thousands had been killed, three men had thought to raise a flag ‘caked in crud,’ as one of them would put it, to rally the living and honor the dead.”

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News photographer Thomas E. Franklin’s day began on September 11, 2001 earlier than usual at the offices of his employer, The Bergen Record of Passaic, New Jersey. An editor told him a plane hit the World Trade Center. Franklin, who had been on the paper’s staff since 1993, headed down the New Jersey Turnpike to Jersey City. He heard about the crash of United Flight 175 into the WTC south tower on the radio.

Franklin stopped at Exchange Place in Jersey City and went to the riverfront. As a veteran of the news coverage area, he knew where the best views of the WTC would be. He put a memory card into his digital camera. He witnessed ferries carrying wounded persons and the establishment of a triage area and took shots of the action.

“The whole day was an emotional roller coaster. I was scanning the faces in Jersey City, hoping that I would see my brother. He works two blocks south of the World Trade Center. I didn’t find out until 3 o’clock that afternoon that he was okay,” Franklin recalled in The Record.

By noon the ferries began to taper off. Another photographer, John Wheeler, convinced the police to let himself and Franklin take a tugboat to New York. He first arrived at WTC 7, a 47-story structure that would collapse that night. As Franklin further penetrated Ground Zero, police threatened to arrest him about a half dozen times.

Franklin was traveling with James Nachtwey, a Pulitzer-prize winning photojournalist who told him he had just narrowly escaped death at Ground Zero. Around 4 or 5 p.m., Franklin and Nachtwey were taking a break and drinking water and juice. A trio of firefighters caught his eye.

“I would I say was 150 yards away when I saw the firefighters raising the flag. They were standing on a structure about 20 feet above the ground. This was a long lens picture: there was about 100 yards between the foreground and background, and the long lens would capture the enormity of the rubble behind them,” Franklin said.

The three firefighters, William Eisengrein, George Johnson and Daniel McWilliams, had discovered a US flag on the back of a yacht inside a boat slip at the World Financial Center. They took the banner and decided to raise it as a statement of loyalty and resilience.

Franklin recalled, “I made the picture standing underneath what may have been one of the elevated walkways, possibly the one that had connected the World Trade plaza and the World Financial Center. As soon as I shot it, I realized the similarity to the famous image of the Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima.

“This was an important shot. It told more than just death and destruction. It said something to me about the strength of the American people and of thse firemen having to battle the unimaginable.”

Two generations ago, when the US was in World War II, Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal snapped a picture of six Marines raising Old Glory on Mount Suribachi on the Pacific island in February 1945. The photo became a WWII icon and the basis for a Marine Corps memorial sculpture in Washington, D.C. The Battle of Iwo Jima also is recognized as the beginning of the end of the campaign against the Japanese in the Pacific.

The firefighters of Engine 255 and Ladder 157 of Brooklyn had been digging in the rubble and searching for survivors at WTC 7, when they were told to evacuate. The weakened structure was close to collapse.

During the evacuation, McWilliams, 35, of Long Island, saw the yacht, Star of America, owned by Shirley Dreifus of the Majestic Star company in New York. He took the flag and its pole from the stern and rolled it up so it would not touch the ground. He took it to the evacuation area. The Old Glory itself was American made, originating from Eder Flag Manufacturing of Oakcreek, Wisconsin.

McWilliams, of Ladder 157, passed a coworker, Johnson, 36, of Rockaway Beach, Queens. He slapped Johnson on the shoulder and said, “Give me a hand, will ya, George?”

Eisengrein, of Rescue 2 from Brooklyn, saw them and said, “You need a hand?” Eisengren also was a childhood friend of McWilliams on Staten Island and still resided there.

The firefighters found a flagpole within rubble about 20 feet off the ground on West Street. They used a improvised ramp to climb to the pole to raise the flag. As they performed their act, Franklin aimed his long lens in their direction.

McWilliams remembered that other fire personnel yelled, “Good job!” and “Way to go!”

“Ever pair of eyes that saw that flag got a little brighter,” McWilliams said.

The three firemen decided to raise the flag on the spur of the moment. McWilliams said that “a big part of this is maintaining the unity of the whole team.” The men were stressed from the WTC collapse and the lack of survivors among the debris.

In all, 343 firefighters died in the Trade Center disaster, along with 23 New York City and 37 Port Authority police officers and six medical rescue workers.

Franklin’s photograph appeared in the 12 September 2001 Record. Reaction was swift and emotional. The flag raising firemen were hit with numerous calls from friends and family. Their first reaction — surprise, as they didn’t know Franklin took their picture.

The Record itself received 30,000 requests to reprint the photograph, which the paper initially granted if they were not for profit. Among the requests from commercial concerns were to reprint it on shirts and three-dimensional music boxes.

The periodical stopped the gratis distribution and instead asked for donations to its disaster fund. The money was distributed to charities selected by McWilliams, Johnson and Eisengrein. The photo eventually was made into an authorized poster sold through the paper’s Web site and private companies.

Read more here

Photos: Firemen Raising Flag (top), the US stamp version of Franklin’s famous image (middle), firefighters and photographer pose with President George W. Bush at the stamp unveiling on 11 March 2002 (bottom)

Image Credit: Thomas E. Franklin (top), U.S. PostalService (middle), White House Staff (bottom)

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