Even a year later, the image of the three New York City firemen hoisting the American flag at Ground Zero just hours after the worst-ever attack on U.S. territory remains the most enduring image from that horrific day — and may be among the most inspirational tableaux in the country’s history.
The historic photo, taken by Thomas Franklin of The Record of North Jersey, conjures up two of America’s most moving battle icons — the victorious World War II flag-raising at Iwo Jima and the National Anthem’s defiant lyric celebrating the country’s resiliency under attack: “… the bombs bursting in air gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.”
But a year after those three firefighters rallied a stunned nation with their real-life proof that our flag was still there, few Americans even know their names.
In fact, the FDNY’s Dan McWilliams and George Johnson, who raced to the burning Twin Towers that day from Brooklyn’s Ladder Company No. 157, along with Billy Eisengrein, who headed to the same destination from Staten Island’s Rescue Company No. 2, have shunned the spotlight ever since that week.
Their only public comments about the events that led up to the famous moment appeared in The Record three days after the attack.
McWilliams said he spotted the flag hanging from a yacht docked on the Hudson River after he and his crew were ordered to evacuate Ground Zero because of the imminent collapse of a third tower, the World Trade Center’s Building Number Seven.
Ordinarily, the fall of the 47-story behemoth would have been a momentous event in and of itself. It’s a measure of the magnitude of events that day that Number Seven’s disintegration rated barely a footnote in the next day’s news coverage.
Sitting in the kitchen of their Brooklyn firehouse two days later, McWilliams and Johnson recounted the sequence of events that led up to the legendary photo.
“Gimme a hand, will ya, George?” McWilliams recalled shouting to his buddy Johnson, in an interview with The Record.
“I knew exactly what he was doing,” Johnson added.
Standing nearby was Billy Eisengrein, who, as luck would have it, just happened to be a childhood friend of McWilliams when the two lived on Staten Island. “You need a hand?” Eisengrein shouted.
The three firefighters quickly found a perfect spot — a single flagpole anchored in the rubble about 20 feet off the ground on West Street.
As they raised the flag, the trio of heroes were completely unaware they were being photographed, they told the paper — let alone marching into history.
Where Are They Now?
Since that fateful Tuesday, it’s been a busy year for the three firemen who helped a devastated nation recover its spirit.
A firestorm of protest erupted after NewsMax reported the plan to obscure the firefighters’ true identities to make the trio racially diverse, including a black and a Hispanic. A surge of outrage forced the department to scrap the plan.
Through it all McWilliams, Johnson and Eisengrein have remained remarkably silent. An FDNY spokesman told NewsMax that the flag-raising trio had instructed his office to decline all interview requests.
But according to their lawyer, William Kelly, the months since 9/11 have been anything but uneventful for his three clients.
“They’ve been trying to keep as low profile as possible so they could get back to work,” Kelly told NewsMax, explaining that Johnson and McWilliams have since been promoted to lieutenant.
As demand skyrocketed for the famous flag-raising image, Kelly helped the firemen set up a charity, The Bravest Fund, to which 100 percent of the revenues they receive from licensing agreements are donated. The money goes to aid the families of firefighters, police officers and emergency service workers who were killed or injured on 9/11.
Though the flag-raising trio’s public appearances have been few, they were honored by a ceremony aboard the USS Teddy Roosevelt after the ship sailed into the Afghan war zone carrying the Ground Zero flag.
The office of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, which currently has
custody of the flag, will likely donate the 9/11 icon to the Smithsonian Institution, he said.
Since 9/11, the flag-raising image has become one of the most popular in the world. The image of the three firefighters came to symbolize America’s resiliency under attack. The highlight of the year was the trio’s visit to the White House in March for the unveiling of a U.S. postage stamp bearing their likenesses.
It’s the only time in the history of the U.S. Postal Service that the agency has issued a commemorative stamp featuring the images of still-living Americans.
Kelly gave NewsMax a behind-the-scenes account of the flag-raising trio’s visit with the president of the United States.
“I went down with them to the Oval Office,” he told NewsMax. “We spent about 20 or 30 minutes with President Bush,” who had reportedly personally chosen the image from several submissions approved by the Postal Service.
Unnoted in most press accounts of the event, however, was the gift the three firefighters brought with them.
It was a wooden box originally carved for the famous flag, given to Johnson by the family of a cancer-stricken 8-year-old boy in Kentucky whose life the fireman saved in 1997 when he donated his bone marrow.
“The box had an American flag on it, this beautiful little wood box,” Kelly said. “And when we were in the Oval Office, George gave that to the president.”
After Bush learned the story behind the gift, Kelly recalled, “He put the box on his desk and said, ‘The next time you see me on television in the Oval Office, you’re going to see this box sitting here on my desk.’”
Firefighters Still in Need
According to legal experts, families of the 343 firefighters who died on 9/11 may not have the same claim to government benefits as others who perished in the disaster.
“As it’s currently set up, the [federal compensation] program will likely leave the families of many emergency workers with no federal recovery money at all,” reported The National Law Journal in January. “If they opt out of the program and sue in court, on the other hand, the law makes it particularly difficult for police officers and firefighters to recover for death and injuries suffered in the line of duty.”
Worse still, said the Journal, under the laws of many states, including New York, firefighters and police officers generally cannot recover for injuries due to negligent acts, subject to limited exceptions. The “firefighters’ rule” is based on the assumption that police and firefighters are paid to put themselves in harm’s way.
New York attorney Michael Block, counsel for the Uniformed Firefighters Association, told NewsMax that he thought the needs of the 9/11 firefighters’ families were generally well taken care of under pre-existing pension plans and other statutory benefits.
But for 9/11 rescue workers who rushed to the Twin Towers and survived, it’s a different story.
Thousands of firefighters who didn’t die in the collapse spent months working on Ground Zero rescue and recovery efforts. Many of them now suffer from respiratory problems. In more than a few cases, those health problems have already ended careers.
“We’re actually representing several hundred firefighters who have filed claims against the City of New York for failing to receive adequate respiratory protection during the rescue and recovery efforts, Block explained. There have been more than 1,000 such claims filed so far, he said.
That’s one of the reasons The Bravest Fund was created.
“The Bravest Fund is the only fund that I know of that was established by active firefighters themselves,” attorney Kelly told NewsMax.” It is not limited to 9/11. We are trying to build something for the future.”
“Our goal now is to grow the fund and then start making donations to firehouses that have been overlooked by a lot of the charities currently in place,” he explained.
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