In the 15 years since the terrorist attacks in New York City, northern Virginia and Shanksville, PA, many stories—real and unreal—have been told. Over the years, we’ve been intrigued and inspired by stories of heroic actions, strange “coincidences” that kept people from going to work that day, conspiracy theories and miraculous tales of survival.
Perhaps one of the most amazing stories is the one behind the iconic photo of three firefighters raising the American flag among the ruins of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. What most people don’t know about that flag was that it disappeared just hours after it was put in place, only to be found more than a decade later and nearly three thousand miles from where that famed photo was taken.
On September 11, 2001, the three firefighters from Brooklyn—George Johnson, Dan McWilliams and Billy Eisengrein—could never have known what their spontaneous display of patriotism would mean to the nation. What was their private tribute to honor all of those whose final resting place was a multi-story pile of steel and cement would become an indelible scene that is now etched onto the collective memory of Americans of a tragic day long ago. So moving was the photo, it was immediately compared to another momentous flag-raising in American history—the one at Iwo Jima during World War II. The photograph earned a Pulitzer Prize and inspired many artists and was captured on a US postage stamp.
The firefighters didn’t know that as they paid their respects and showed their love of country, photographer Thomas E. Franklin was standing nearby and took the photo late that afternoon for the New Jersey newspaper that he worked for at the time. It appeared in papers all over the world the next day.
Oddly enough, the flag didn’t belong to any of the fire departments working at Ground Zero. McWilliams had taken it off of a yacht that was docked nearby on the Hudson River—a vessel called Star of America that was owned by a woman named Shirley Dreifus. He had sawed off the yardarm holding the flag and the three found a pole to display it about 20 feet off the ground. It disappeared late that night, and no one knew who took it. It was assumed that the city took possession of it, and a flag owned by the city and believed to be the flag from the photo was signed by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Governor George Pataki.
That flag made its rounds all over the world. It was flown at New York City Hall, Yankee Stadium and aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt. After its many adventures, the original owner of the Ground Zero flag—Ms. Dreifus—decided to officially turn it over to the city. That’s when she noticed that the flag she thought came from her yacht was actually a different size than the one she had. She even started a website in an effort to recover her lost flag. CNN also aired a documentary in 2013 about the mystery of the lost Ground Zero flag. It was during this filming where video evidence was found that confirmed the flag’s disappearance took place the night of 9/11/01 around 11 p.m.
Flash forward to the fall of 2014 when author, history buff and host of the History Channel’s “Brad Meltzer’s Lost History” enters the picture. He did a story about the missing flag on the show’s first episode, offering a $10,000 reward to the person who had it to turn it in. A few days later, a man who said he was a Marine named Brian turned it in to a fire station in Everett, Washington–more than 2800 miles from Ground Zero. That news just came out this week because Brian’s flag had to undergo rigorous testing to verify that it had in fact been the one from Ground Zero. After almost two years of experts conducting their research, it passed every test.
According to a report in the Everett Herald, Brian did not give the firefighters his last name when he turned the flag in and didn’t want the reward money. He reportedly had gotten the flag from an unnamed worker with the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration, who had gotten it from one of the 9/11 widows.
Police in Everett have released a composite sketch of the big-hearted Marine named Brian and hope he comes forward to tell the rest of the story of the Ground Zero Flag. The flag was found as mysteriously as it disappeared 15 years ago and now takes its rightful place at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York just in time for Sunday’s anniversary remembrance.
The History Channel will be airing another special on Sunday night (“America’s 9/11 Flag: Rise From the Ashes”) hosted by Meltzer and will give all the details on the Ground Zero flag’s strange journey that took it across the country and how the experts were able to verify its authenticity as the flag raised by those three resolute firefighters 15 years ago.
If you were old enough 14 years ago to remember the events of this day, you probably know exactly where you were and what you were doing. It was a Tuesday, and since then, we’ve seen many Tuesdays come and go. The photos of all those who lost their lives on this day in 2001 slowly faded with time and fell from their places on cement walls and bulletin boards. The phrase “Never Forget” is often seen and heard on this day, only to go away again until next September 11th.
All of those who perished on 9/11/01, their families, friends, and colleagues have a story to tell… and some of those stories have been told many times. Some stories may never be. When it comes to the passengers and crew that boarded Flight 93 on that fateful morning, the names that usually come to mind are Todd Beamer, Mark Bingham and Tom Burnett. They were the men who decided to lead the other passengers in an attempt to re-take their airplane from the terrorists. As a result of the last heroic efforts of many of the passengers, Flight 93 is the only plane that never made it to its intended target, which is now believed to have been the U.S. Capitol building.
Among the other passengers and crew was a former police detective (Cee Cee Lyles, flight attendant); a greeting-card aficionado who always remembered loved ones and co-workers on special occasions…two of whom received cards from her that were postmarked 9-11-01 (Lorraine Bay, flight attendant); an aspiring child psychologist who worked with troubled teens (Deora Bodley); an ironworker who helped to build the World Trade Center and who had served as a paratrooper in the U.S. Army (William Cashman); an account executive at Good Housekeeping who was in the middle of writing her own book to inspire women (Lauren Grandcolas). As a side note, Lauren, who was 38, was expecting her first child with her husband Jack at the time of her death. Every year when they read the names of the victims at the memorial service in Shanksville, PA and a bell tolls for each passenger …her unborn child is also recognized among them. Lauren’s two sisters completed her book, titled “You Can Do It: The Merit Badge Handbook for Grown-Up Girls.”
Time and space doesn’t permit a complete list, but here are a few more: a veteran of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm who later flew humanitarian missions to Somalia (First Officer Leroy Homer); a college-aged Japanese national who was headed home after having visited such American icons as the Statue of Liberty and Niagara Falls who traveled alone so he could immerse himself in the English language (Toshiya Kuge); the Purser on Flight 93 (Deborah Jacobs Welsh) who had more than 25 years of experience in the airline industry. Deborah was known for her compassion that she showed to the homeless who lived near her Manhattan neighborhood when she would bring them leftover airline meals and warm winter clothing.
These are just some of the 40 people who, when they saw evil face-to-face, didn’t sit around asking why the terrorists hated them. They didn’t form committees to try to analyze the evil before them. Time wasn’t on their side and they knew it…and they acted.
The passengers and crew of United 93 could be considered some of the first civilian heroes of the modern-day War on Terror (a term our current president no longer uses). The world has gotten even more dangerous in the 14years since. The same ideology of the hijackers of 9-11-01 is the same ideology that threatens large swathes of the Middle East right now. It now goes by another name than it did in 2001, but it’s still pure evil and it has to be called out for what it is.
Those people could have ignored what was happening before them that day, but it wouldn’t have done them any good…and if they had chosen to sit passively in their seats and accept what was happening, it wouldn’t have turned out any differently for them. On the other hand, but for their fearlessness in the face of terror, that day could have turned out much differently for a lot of other people.
Before there was Facebook or Twitter or Instagram…long before everyone had a phone that was also a camera, Bill Biggart knew what it was like to look at life through a lens. He was doing it before it became the thing to do. Bill’s work took him all over the world in his career as a photojournalist, but that day 13 years ago found him home in New York.
When the first plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center, a taxi driver passing by him on the street alerted him to the news. He quickly ran home to get two film cameras and one digital camera and walked towards the Twin Towers, snapping pictures as he went. His passion for the people affected by the historical events he covered is evident in his work. He seemed to capture an odd beauty of regular people in irregular circumstances, as in his photos of the people of Northern Ireland struggling for independence in the 1980’s. He was there when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and once again his lens focuses on the people, their faces full of excitement and expectation.
But it was his work from that September day in 2001that most of us would know. If you’ve seen any pictures from 9/11/01, you’ve seen a Bill Biggart picture. Once again, many of them are of people: the stunned and weary firefighters and shell-shocked office workers who escaped from the towers. A friend and fellow photographer said of him: “One thing Bill taught me was that sometimes the picture is behind you, in the faces of people watching.”
And so it was this passion for the real story as told on the faces of those on the scene, that led him to get as close as he could to where things were happening. Shortly after the South Tower fell (the first to go down), Bill’s wife Wendy called him on his cell phone. He told her not to worry and that he would meet her at his studio 20 minutes later. He reassured her saying, “I’m safe. I’m with the firemen.”
By now you’ve probably guessed that Bill never made it to his studio to meet his wife. He continued taking pictures of the aftermath of the South Tower’s collapse…right up until 10:28 am when the North Tower fell. In fact, his last shot, pictured below, was time-stamped at 10:28:24. Only seconds after he took it, Bill Biggart perished. His camera and press passes where found in the debris four days later. He was the only professional photographer to be killed covering the September 11th terrorist attacks.
His wife Wendy said, “With a press pass around his neck and a camera bag over his shoulder, in the middle of a cross fire – Bill was in heaven.” In his 54 years of life, Bill saw the world and translated what he saw through the lens of a camera. He left the world more than just some really poignant pictures of historical events, however. His life and work leave the rest of us with the idea that people can do what they were born to do. His is an example of a life lived with passion and intention, doing what he loved to do…and he did it until his last breath.
On another Tuesday morning eleven years ago today, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center cast their final shadows over the neighboring buildings in lower Manhattan. Before noon that day, the shadows would be gone, and so were the towers. The world– and the New York City skyline– had changed forever.
One small, unassuming building that miraculously escaped the effects of the collapse of the towers and the resulting hurricane of debris and humanity was St. Paul’s Chapel. As the oldest continuous-use public building in New York City, it survived the burning of New York in September 1776 when the British re-took the city from the Continental army. Back then, St. Paul’s was saved by a bucket brigade. Flash forward to 2001, and it was saved by a 100-year-old sycamore tree that bore the brunt of the towers’ collapse, shielding the small building as if Divine Providence were saving it for a special purpose.
Within days of the terrorist attacks in 2001, St. Paul’s became a place of refuge for the rescuers. Due to its close proximity to Ground Zero, rescue and recovery workers would make their way to the chapel where they found a hot meal, massage therapists to soothe their aching muscles, and people to pray with them and for them to soothe their aching souls. Some would just come to rest or sleep in the pews after long hours of working in “the pit” that was Ground Zero. One police officer called St. Paul’s an “oasis of heaven in the midst of hell.”
Volunteers from all faiths and walks of life came from around the country to help the helpers. This ministry to the workers at Ground Zero continued for several months until the recovery work officially ended in May 2002.
This wasn’t the first time in its history that St. Paul’s filled an important role as a place for reflection and worship for citizens and leaders following a traumatic time. Another American hero made his way to the doors of the chapel on a day long before 9-11. Before attending a service of thanksgiving at St. Paul’s in April 1789, President George Washington was inaugurated just a short walk away from the chapel in Federal Hall (on Wall Street). At that time, the nation’s capital was New York City. Having just come through the war for our independence, the young nation and its citizens were in need of direction and an uplifting sentiment from their new leader (much like the days following the attacks). In his inaugural address, Washington stated:
“No People can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand, which conducts the Affairs of men more than the People of the United States. Every step, by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation, seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency.”
The same could be said of the little chapel that survived the fall of the Twin Towers. Today, St. Paul’s Chapel remains, as always, a place of worship, but also serves as sort of a mini-museum to where the events of September 11, 2001 can be remembered and reflected upon by all who visit there. Several exhibits memorialize those who perished, and pay tribute to the brave police officers, firemen and other first-responders who put themselves in harm’s way in order to save others.
In yesterdays post, I linked to some rather disturbing audio of two victims of the attack on the World Trade Center nine years ago during their last moments on earth. I also posted a picture that’s come to be known as “The Falling Man”, depicting one of those many WTC victims who choose to exit the building on their own terms rather than wait for the fate that they knew was coming. The photographer behind The Falling Man, Richard Drew, was initially criticized for snapping that one second in The Falling Man’s life as he was approaching his death. Newspapers were also under fire for running the photo, so therefore it ran only once in most papers here in the United States. I never came across it myself until a year ago, and found it shocking and disturbing. Even so, I see it as another memorial to those who died, much like the memorial wall above at Ground Zero. The photo above was taken on my last visit there in July 2006, so I don’t know whether or not it still stands. The construction of a permanent memorial and towers is still a work in progress, as is the memorial in Shanksville, PA for the passengers and crew of Flight 93. To the best of my knowledge, the memorial to the Pentagon victims is the only one that’s been completed. These things take time, I suppose, but it’s important that they get done. Memorials serve not just to pay tribute to those who passed away, but they’re important for the living. As September 11, 2001 gets further and further in the past, we need to be reminded, at least once a year of what happened and what those people went through. Not just the people whose last dramatic moments were caught on film or audio tape, but everybody who was lost: the rescue workers, who walked up into the towers, as others were going down towards safety—and life. The passengers on the 3 flights that flew into the towers and into the Pentagon who never knew what was happening. The passengers on Flight 93 who did know, and decided to do something about it. The workers at the Pentagon who were taken in an instant as they sat at their desks… and those people who’ve since passed away from illnesses caused by working among the debris at Ground Zero. All of these deserve to be remembered, today and always.
**Note: The images and audio linked in this post will be upsetting. They’re not meant to be sensational or disrespectful, only to help all of us to never forget.**
Tomorrow marks the 9th anniversary of the worst terrorist attack on American soil. A year ago, I started this blog with the posting “Things to Remember on 9-11”. In the years since that horrible day, much has been written about, spoken of, argued over, etc. when it comes to the events of September 11, 2001 and why they happened. Sometimes it seems that the real people that were affected—those whose lives were lost and the people who love them—get brushed to the side. Even now, images of the attack come along less and less as the always-parental media (who know what’s best for us) refuse to replay or reprint them, for fear of upsetting anyone or of being politically incorrect.
That’s not the case here. Truth lives, and sometimes it hurts. We can try to bury it in the past, but we can’t ever let ourselves forget what really happened…and what really did happen that day? Put yourself in some other shoes…
Suppose you were a tourist hoping to get an early start on seeing all the sights of New York, or maybe you are a local on your way to work. The day is beautiful and calm until the first plane strikes the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Not long after, another plane strikes the South Tower. Shock and fear surround you as the chaos unfolds. As you watch people running—and jumping—from the two skyscrapers, you wonder why this is happening and when it will end.
Inside the building, those who managed to escape later described what was going on as “surreal” and “hellish”. You definitely get that feeling when you listen to the 9-11 calls of those trapped above the points of impact. Kevin Cosgrove’s last moments of life have been heard and remembered by people who never met him, as were those of Melissa Doi. Both of their 9-11 calls have been edited together here. Mr. Cosgrove, trapped on the 105th floor of the South Tower is last heard exclaiming, “Oh, God!”, as the tower begins to come down above him.
No less compelling are the terrified pleas of Ms. Doi to the 9-11 operator, asking if anyone was coming to help them on the 83rd floor. Trying to keep her calm, the operator tries repeatedly to reassure her as she asks, “I’m going to die aren’t I?” Ms. Doi also describes the unbearable heat and the heavy smoke that caused many office workers to jump some 1200 feet to their deaths to avoid being incinerated.
This above photo, known as “The Falling Man” became famous around the world. Most papers ran it only once, resulting in much criticism from their readers. The Associated Press photographer who took the picture, Richard Drew, expressed his feelings towards the critics by saying, “I didn’t capture this person’s death. I captured part of his life. This is what he decided to do, and I think I preserved that.” Drew explained in an interview that 9-11 was more than just the crumbling of the buildings. It was about the people. Nine years later, the identity of this man is still uncertain, but in his death, he’s become a symbol of the horrendous choice many of those in the towers were forced to make that day.
- Photo by Susan Meiselas/ Magnum Photos
**PLEASE CHECK BACK FOR PART 2 POSTING TOMORROW AFTERNOON***