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.
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.
After a summer full of debt ceiling haggling, Republican cave-ins, pre-election season debates, presidential vacations, presidential golf games, East coast earthquakes and a hurricane (in the same week!)…the media will give Summer 2011 a big finale with their coverage of the Tenth Anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Beginning this weekend and continuing through September, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any major network or cable channel that will not have some sort of special to air or live coverage the day of the anniversary. The Weather Channel may be the only one, and I’m not sure they aren’t planning to cover it in some way.
Perhaps the most outrageous special that I’ve seen advertised will be on the Biography Channel, where you’d expect things to have a little more substance. However, “When Pop Culture Saved America: The 9-11 Story” sounds like it will be more fluff from a bunch of mostly B-list celebrities telling us how they felt it was their duty to get the country laughing again. Gee, I don’t know what I would have done in the days following 9-11 without the comedic genius of Gilbert Gottfried. You’ve got to be kidding me! Come on, Biography Channel, you can do better than that.
Pop culture most definitely did NOT save America after 9-11-01. Americans saved America by putting aside our differences to pray for the victims and their families…by volunteering in our communities…by donating blood to the point where blood drives were turning people away…and by attending church in record numbers. Americans looked to each other, and to God- not Hollywood- for comfort. It’s a foolish individual indeed, who turns to Hollywood and, I might add, Washington, in times of trial and tragedy. This is just another way to turn a world event into another “look at me” moment for people constantly needing to make the story about themselves.
The specials that I’m planning to watch are going to focus on what happened and to whom. I don’t care about commentary from Dan Rather or Gilbert Gottfried. I want to know how the survivors who escaped from the buildings are doing now. I want to hear from the wives of the firefighters who left home that morning and never returned. What about a special on the stories of New York City 9-1-1 operators who took some of those calls from people trapped in the World Trade Center? How is Lisa Beamer and her family been doing in the ten years since losing their husband and father (Todd Beamer, United 93)? Who could tire of the accounts of the heroes who rushed in to save people, and everyday office workers who became heroes when they led their colleagues through smoke and fire to get to safety, just in the nick of time?
There are millions of stories like these that can and should be told every year on the anniversary. We shouldn’t rest until every story is told. Only in remembering what we lost that day can we stay vigilant, so that it never happens again.