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The 9/11 Image We Shall Never Forget

Monday, 04 September 2006 12:00 AM

The image has been immortalized: it has been turned into a stamp, and put on the face of a watch and the cover of a lunchbox. It's been duplicated on T-shirts and Christmas ornaments. It was also left as a calling card in Afghanistan by U.S commandos.

That photograph - three firefighters hoisting an American flag amidst the rubble of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 - simultaneously captured the horror of that day and inspired hope in a shell-shocked nation.

The photo was taken by Thomas Franklin, a New Jersey newspaper photographer. Five years after he snapped the photo, he still receives e-mails, letters, and phone calls about it.

And so do the trio of firefighters. George Johnson, Dan McWilliams, and Bill Eisengrein were besieged by media requests in the months after Sept. 11. But unlike others in this media-obsessed world, with the exception of one brief statement the day after the flag-raising, none of them has spoken to the media until now about the events of that terrible week. No network TV interviews. No product endorsements. No celebrity-laden appearances.

"They are grounded, down-to-earth people," explained Bill Kelly, a New York attorney who represents the trio. "We got calls from every news and entertainment entity you could possibly imagine: Oprah, Barbara Walters, Super Bowl, NASCAR. They said no to everything."

Kelly said they wanted to keep their lives the same as they were before. Now Bill Eisengrein, the firefighter on the right side of the photo, has broken his silence to speak about the famous image.

"It really hasn't changed my life," he modestly told NewsMax. "It's helped other people's lives, though, with the money we have taken in." Licensing rights to the photo contribute to a non-profit created by the three firefighters, called The Bravest Fund. Eisengrein, who is still a firefighter, is the organization's treasurer.

Johnson (the man on the left side of the photo), was promoted twice, first to lieutenant, then to captain. McWilliams (the one in the middle seen hoisting the flag) was promoted to lieutenant.

Their encounter with history was purely spontaneous. On the afternoon of Sept. 11, in the hours after the twin towers collapsed, McWilliams, Johnson, and Eisengrein were among the thousands of rescue personnel who had descended on the pile of rubble to search for survivors. They were told to evacuate because the rubble was in danger of collapsing, and that's when McWilliams found the flag, hanging from a nearby yacht that had been covered in debris.

McWilliams saw a coworker, Johnson, and slapped him on the shoulder. He asked Johnson to give him a hand. Eisengrein, also a childhood friend of McWilliams, was passing by and asked, "You need a hand?"

They scavenged a flagpole from the rubble and, covered with dust amidst a landscape of devastation, began hoisting the vibrant red, white and blue of Old Glory.

The photographer, Franklin, was actually on the deck of a ferry headed to New Jersey, and he snapped a quick photo of the three men with a telephoto lens. The firefighters actually didn't know until later that they were being photographed.

"The shot immediately felt important to me," Franklin told a reporter from his newspaper. "It said something to me about the strength of the American people and about the courage of all the firefighters who, in the face of this horrible disaster, had a job to do in battling the unimaginable."

Upon seeing the photograph, another famous image came to the minds of many: The Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima during World War II. Franklin's newspaper, The Record, received 30,000 requests for the photo. The firefighters started The Bravest Fund (www.bravestfund.com) to benefit emergency responders who suffer career-ending injuries or death - including those injured on 9/11.

Ironically, nobody seems to know whatever happened to that famous flag. A few weeks after Sept. 11, Mayor Rudy Guiliani signed what was thought to be the famous flag during a ceremony. But the flag that he signed was bigger than the original one. What happened to the flag from Sept. 11 is anybody's guess.

"It could be anywhere," said attorney Kelly.

On Sept. 12, McWilliams explained to The Record why he decided to hoist the flag into the air on that ill-fated day.

"Everybody just needed a shot in the arm," he said. "Every pair of eyes that saw that flag got a little brighter."

Eisengrein, now 42, says that he lost many friends on 9/11, but he has healed.

"Everybody reacted to it in different ways," he told NewsMax. "The way I view it, you can sit and cry yourself to sleep every night or you can move on."

When asked what he would like Americans to know about that nightmarish September day, Eisengrein paused.

"Never forget who did this to us," he said. "Personally, I think way too many people criticize President Bush and the government in general. The president is doing what he needs to do to keep this country safe."

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The image has been immortalized: it has been turned into a stamp, and put on the face of a watch and the cover of a lunchbox. It's been duplicated on T-shirts and Christmas ornaments. It was also left as a calling card in Afghanistan by U.S commandos. That photograph -...
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Monday, 04 September 2006 12:00 AM
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