On September 11, 2001, in New York City, the World Trade Center (WTC) was attacked by terrorists. Flights 11 and 175 were hijacked and both flown into the twin towers. In the rubble of the fallen buildings, three New York City firefighters raised an American flag as a symbol of freedom. The event was captured by photographer Thomas E. Franklin.
News photographer Thomas E. Franklin shot the image at 5:01 p.m., shooting his series of photos from about 150 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,” Franklin said. “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 William ‘Billy’ Eisengrein, looked on. I pointed my camera and shot a burst of frames as the flag went up,” Franklin said.
“For a brief moment, the similarity to [Joe] Rosenthal’s picture [“Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima”] flashed through my mind and I recognized the symbolism,” Franklin has said.
After his photo was used for The Record newspaper and put on The Associated Press wire shortly after midnight, the image seemed to take on a life of its own. It has since been printed on 255 million U.S. postage stamps as a fund-raiser for emergency workers with sales generating upwards of $10 million.
Where did the flag come from?
The firemen stole it!
Firefighters of Engine 255 and Ladder 157 of Brooklyn, New York had been digging in the rubble at Ground Zero searching for survivors at WTC 7, when they were instructed to evacuate as the weakened structure was close to collapse. During the evacuation, Firefighter Dan McWilliams, 35, from Ladder 157 spotted the flag and flagpole and was inspired to move it to West Street where rescue crews were working. McWilliams, of Long Island, spotted a 130-ft. yacht named “Star of America” which was owned by Shirley Dreifus of the Majestic Star company in New York while it was docked inside a boat slip at the World Financial Center.
McWilliams cut the yardarm off of the yacht with a K-Saw and then took the flag and its pole from the yacht to an evacuation area. On his way, McWilliams passed a coworker, George Johnson, 36, of Rockaway Beach, Queens. He slapped Johnson on his shoulder and said, “Give me a hand, will ya, George?” William Eisengrein, of Rescue 2 from Brooklyn, saw them and asked, “You need a hand?”
The firefighters found a flagpole within rubble about 20 feet off the ground on West Street. They used an improvised ramp to climb to the pole to raise the flag McWilliams had aquired. As they performed their act, Franklin aimed his long camera lens in their direction and snapped what became the iconic image.
Ms. Dreifus later noticed her flag was missing when she came to inspect the boat after the attack. People at the marina witnessed the firefighters taking the flag and were able to inform Ms. Dreifus that it was her flag that had apparently been raised in the now-famous photo.
Where did the flag go afterwards?
Still smelling of smoke, the flag was immediately transported to the crew of the USS Theodore Roosevelt en route to Afghanistan. It was then shared with six other military ships before returning to New York City. On Monday, April 1, 2002, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and George Pataki signed the flag and it was raised formally in front of New York’s City Hall. All three of the firefighters who had originally raised the flag at the World Trade Center on September 11 were in attendance in places of honor. After flying over City Hall for a week, the flag was rotated among various city police and firehouses.
But guess what?
The flag has since disappeared. The rightful owners of the flag wanted to donate the flag to the Smithsonian Institution and asked about a year after the attacks to borrow the signed flag briefly for a ceremony. The city thought it had possession of the flag after the attack, but when an official was sent to pick up the flag, it seems he received a larger flag than the one taken from the yacht of Shirley Dreifus.
While the yacht’s flag measured four feet by six feet, the flag the city had in its possession measured five feet by eight feet
“When we got the flag, we were quite stunned that it was the wrong flag,” said Shirley Dreifus. “This wraps around the two of us, and we’re not the thinnest people on Earth … So we knew right away it was the wrong flag.”
So where is the flag? I believe it is probably in a landfill somewhere or has passed through a recycling center and is long gone. The flag passed around the Navy and Yankee stadium and the other locations was some other flag from the location but not the flag stolen from Shirley Dreifus’ yacht.
Why didn’t Firefighter Dan McWilliams get arrested for vandalism and theft?
Some would argue in order for there to be a crime, there must be a victim. The ‘victim’ in this case would be Shirley Dreifus who had her personal property vandalized and removed from her possession without her knowledge and consent. Some would argue Dan McWilliams and his cohorts should have been cited and charged like any looters would.
What do you think? Should these men have been given reprieve due to the stress of the situation? They had no idea they would be considered by many as heroes as they were not aware Thomas Franklin was photographing them and that more than those working it the area would know what they had done. They were not doing something ‘for the betterment of America’. Or should the City of New York charge these men with the crimes of vandalism and theft based on evidence and eyewitness testimony? Yeah, good luck on that right?
I guess in the meantime the world will just go on beLIEving what it wants to in the effort to make itself feel good.
History is sometimes a lie.
What do you think? Are these guys heroes or common street crooks who feel they are above the law? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.