The photo no one will forget
By Rick Hampson, USA TODAY
For special pullout photo packages of the year in news and sports, check Thursday's print edition of USA TODAY
NEW YORK — The photograph has gone around the world, from Ground Zero to Afghanistan. It has been tattooed on a man's arm, carved on a pumpkin and painted on a barn near Middletown, N.Y.
It has appeared on magazine covers and slipcovers, quilts and campaign buttons. A woman in Stilwell, Kan., hand-glued 10,000 colored beads to create a mosaic of it. People in Arlington, Texas, are making a stained-glass window of it.
You've seen the picture: three weary, dusty firefighters raising the American flag in the ruins of the World Trade Center. It is a vision of defiance and courage at a moment of fear and retreat.
"People were grasping for hope," says Monica Moses, who teaches visual design at the Poynter Institute for journalism in St. Petersburg, Fla., "and suddenly there it was."
The photo echoes the classic scene of six American servicemen raising the flag atop Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima during a bloody battle with the Japanese in World War II. This time, however, a mountain is the background — the wreckage of the twin towers.
Great events, including terrible ones, produce great images. This is the story of such an image, captured at 5:09 p.m., Sept. 11, 2001.
It may have been the blackest day's blackest hour. The twin towers were in pieces. After six hours of searching, it was apparent there were few survivors left to be found. Now, another tower — 7 World Trade Center, which had been burning for hours — was about to fall.
An evacuation order went out to the firefighters sifting through the rubble for more than 300 missing comrades.
Dan McWilliams, a 35-year-old firefighter, fell back west toward the Hudson River. There, he saw something on a yacht docked in a marina that made him stop: a 5-by-3-foot American flag attached to a broken wooden pole and covered in debris.
McWilliams dusted off the flag, wrapped it around the pole and started walking back toward Ground Zero. He ran into George Johnson, a member of his Brooklyn ladder company, and tapped him on the shoulder. "Gimme a hand, will ya, George?" McWilliams asked.
Johnson knew immediately what his buddy had in mind. On the way to the site, they met another fireman, Billy Eisengrein, who had known McWilliams since they were kids on Staten Island. "Need a hand?" he asked.
It took about two minutes to reach Ground Zero, where the firefighters were surprised to find exactly what they needed: a large metal flagpole, possibly from the Marriott Hotel in the Trade Center. The pole was jutting at a 45-degree angle from a ledge about 20 feet above the ground. They climbed up and, squinting in the sun, began to rig the flag to the pole.
They did not know a photographer was watching.
Thomas Franklin, 35, was taking a last look around before heading back to New Jersey to transmit his pictures to his newspaper in Bergen County, The Record.
He was under a pedestrian bridge between the towers of the World Financial Center, looking directly east, when he saw the three firefighters about 100 feet away. They were raising a flag — a splash of red, white and blue in an ash-gray wasteland.
He immediately thought of Iwo Jima. That photo, shot by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal, was the most famous image to emerge from World War II. When Franklin talked to high school classes, he always showed the Iwo Jima picture. Now he was staring at its reprise.
But the men and the flag were merely the foreground. About 100 yards behind them loomed the twisted skeleton of a skyscraper. He began shooting with his Canon D2000 and long lens.
The firefighters finished their task and walked away. They didn't notice Franklin. He didn't think to talk to them or even get their names.
The firefighters heard someone yell, "Way to go!" They assumed that was the end of it.
Franklin still had to get his photo to his paper. He talked his way onto a police boat back to New Jersey and hitchhiked 3 miles to his car, where he had left his laptop computer. But the laptop's battery was dead, so he could not transmit his photos.
Driving back to his newspaper, he got stuck in a 5-mile traffic jam. He pulled off the highway, set up in the lobby of a motel and sent his photos to the newspaper. A staffer scanning the incoming photos said, "Oh, my!"
A few hours later, the photo was sent to the Associated Press and transmitted around the world. The phones at The Record began ringing the next morning. Everyone wanted the photo.
Sandy Montesano of Ringwood, N.J., sought a copy of the picture for a 6-month-old girl whose father died at the World Trade Center. "I would like her to know that while there is evil in the world, there is also so much good," she wrote. "Your portrait shows all that America truly is today."
Willy Thompson, a firefighter in Teaneck, N.J., said he had never been so moved by a photograph. He proposed a monument like the Marine Corps War Memorial outside Washington based on the Iwo Jima photo.
The photo began to turn up everywhere: on the locker of the Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Curt Schilling, on a button on the chest of the Yankees' Roger Clemens. The scene was restaged on the field before the first game of the World Series as a surprised Franklin watched from the photographers' box behind first base.
James Bradley, who wrote a best seller about his father's experience as one of the Iwo Jima flag raisers, Flags of Our Fathers, got hundreds of e-mails with Franklin's photo. He hung a copy next to the Iwo Jima photo on the wall of his study. "The country put one and one together and said, 'It happened again!' " he concluded.
Left as a calling card in Afghanistan
In Afghanistan, U.S. commandos who raided positions behind Taliban lines left behind copies of the photo with the words "Freedom Endures" superimposed on them.
In Boca Raton, Fla., a 45-year-old artist checked into a Holiday Inn and began painting her version of Franklin's photo on a 5-by-4-foot canvas. She started at midnight and worked for 10 hours straight, not even stopping for a sip of water.
In Columbus, Ohio, women on the third shift at a Sears credit card processing center hung copies of the photo at their work stations to comfort a co-worker who lost two friends at the Trade Center.
The Record holds the copyright on the flag photo, but the image began appearing unauthorized on T-shirts, posters and other merchandise. Franklin found his photo on stickers at a souvenir shop outside Yankee Stadium. "What about the copyright?" he asked the shop's owner.
"No copyright," the man replied happily.
"I'm the photographer who took the picture!" Franklin said.
"For you, special price!" the man replied.
Meanwhile, The Record decided to give a free print to anyone who asked but suggested a donation to a foundation it set up to aid victims' families.
Hundreds of requests a day
Before it stopped taking requests last month, the newspaper mailed out 30,000 photos. It has received about $400,000 in photo-related donations and still gets hundreds of requests a day for the picture.
Franklin's photo is not the defining image of Sept. 11 — far grimmer ones vie for that distinction — but it is probably the most uplifting.
The background, says cultural historian Mary Panzer, "is what gives the photo its drama. You get a sense of the firemen's accomplishment."
The flag flew at Ground Zero for several days. In October, it was delivered to the USS Theodore Roosevelt in the Middle East. The carrier's firefighters passed the flag in the Navy's "hand-over-hand" ceremony, a tradition honoring the dead, before it was raised up the highest mast. Almost the entire crew of 5,500 jammed the flight deck to watch. "We all consider this our battle flag," Petty Officer 1st Class Rodney Hightower says.
When the crisis is over, the flag will go back to the New York Fire Department, which plans to install an 18-foot-high bronze statue modeled on Franklin's photo outside its headquarters as a memorial.
Franklin and the firefighters, meanwhile, still have not met. But they share a skepticism of their sudden celebrity.
"I was in the right spot at the right time," Franklin says. "But every time something nice happens to me as a result of this, I have to stand back and remember what happened that day. I'm still chilled to the bone."
Franklin's loath to discuss predictions that he's a shoo-in for the Pulitzer Prize in spot news photography. But Joe Urschel, executive director of the Newseum, a media museum in Arlington, Va., says, "If he doesn't win, I don't know who will."
The firefighters say they are not heroes and would prefer never to have been identified.
"They're almost embarrassed by it all," says Johnson's sister, Nancy Brock.
McWilliams and Johnson were interviewed Sept. 13 by The Record. Since then, they have refused requests to talk to the news media about Sept. 11. Friends say McWilliams, an 11-year veteran who lives on Long Island with his wife and two daughters, has taken the losses of that day particularly hard.
"The picture is enough," McWilliams said. "I couldn't name one of the guys in Iwo Jima, and we don't think our names are necessary. It was just three guys with an idea."
The three men are stationed in Brooklyn: McWilliams and Johnson at Ladder Co. 157, and Eisengrein at Rescue Co. 2. All three were off-duty the morning of Sept. 11 and raced to the scene to help. Eisengrein, 37, lost seven members of his company. McWilliams and Johnson's unit was spared any fatalities.
The men have spent the past three months working their regular shifts, searching at Ground Zero and attending fire department funerals. They also have helped the families of firefighters lost in the disaster — buying Christmas trees and completing unfinished house projects.
The firefighters' lawyer, Bill Kelly, says when merchandise related to the photo is licensed and sold, their share will go to victims' families. "My clients won't take a dime themselves," he says.
George Johnson, 36, is the most outgoing of the three, a rugby player, surfer and world traveler who followed his father into the fire department in 1991 after majoring in economics at the State University of New York-Cortland.
In 1996, Johnson donated bone marrow for an operation that saved 4-year-old Forrest Nichols of Munfordville, Ky., from leukemia. After the Sept. 11 attacks, nine Munfordville-area firefighters drove to Brooklyn to hand Johnson $30,000 they collected for victims' families. And on Dec. 8, he returned to Munfordville to march with young Forrest in the town's Christmas parade.
When American Airlines Flight 587 crashed Nov. 12, it landed a few blocks from Johnson's family home in the Rockaway section of Queens. He was stationed at a firehouse in Lower Manhattan that morning, covering for another firefighter who had to attend a funeral. But Johnson raced to the scene with a state trooper and worked to battle the fires and search the wreckage.
Ten days earlier, Johnson had flown to Charlotte to serve on an honor guard at an NBA game between the Hornets and the New York Knicks. But he insisted that he not be introduced by name, only as part of a group of six New York firefighters.
"Let us recover our guys first, and we can talk about the picture later," Johnson told The Charlotte Observer. "Nobody did it for any recognition. Nobody wants any recognition."
Here, too, there is an echo of Iwo Jima. "These firemen sound just like my dad," Bradley says. "He told me the real heroes of Iwo Jima were the guys who didn't come back."
Despite their reticence, it's clear why the firefighters did what they did Sept. 11.
"Everybody just needed a shot in the arm," McWilliams told The Record. "Every pair of eyes that saw that flag got a little brighter."