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By David Friend
PicadorCopyright © 2016 David Friend
All rights reserved.
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 17
There it was again. This time, on the cover of Newsweek. For six days the photo had been in print, on TV, online — the picture soon known as the Flag Photo, the Flag-raising Photo, the Shot Seen Round the World.
The photo showed three Brooklyn firefighters — George Johnson, Dan McWilliams, and Bill Eisengrein — standing at the rim of the World Trade Center ruins as they hoisted the American flag. Photographer Thomas Franklin, of New Jersey's Bergen Record, had taken the shot in the late afternoon on September 11. After midnight, it was released over the AP newswire.
The Flag Photo was instantly snapped up in newsrooms throughout the land and wedged into the next available edition. On Wednesday, it made the front page of newspapers from The (Appleton, Wis.) Post-Crescent to the Los Angeles Daily News to the Bremerton (Wash.) Sun. On Thursday, the New York Post ran it above an anthemlike headline: "... gave proof through the night that our flag was still there." And so began the picture's viral surge through the cultural bloodstream.
People tore it from newspapers. They downloaded it from Web sites. They posted it in the windows of homes and schools, government and office buildings, buses and cars. They embossed it on medals and blew it up on billboards. Artists reinterpreted it, adding vibrant colors or new details in the background: a bald eagle, a crucifix, the towers miraculously upright.
In Texas, it was incorporated into a stained-glass window. In New York, Madame Tussauds turned it into a life-size waxwork. Citizens tattooed it on their biceps. Soldiers toted it into battle. Over the Internet, hucksters sold reconstituted versions of it — painted or lithographed or digitally rejiggered — framed or unframed, with matte or without. Americans wanted to own the image, have a piece of it, display it as an object that expressed their inner tangle of emotions: sorrow, defiance, fortitude, pride.
Of all the pictures from that day of pictures, this was the one that presented a semblance of hope. Standing on the mount where thousands had been killed, three men had thought to raise a flag "caked in crud," as one of them would put it, to rally the living and honor the dead.
In a matter of weeks the photograph had taken on iconic status. It became an emblem of America's unbroken will, of resilience and valor in the face of terror. Its impact derived, in part, from the fact that it eerily echoed another icon (one that had helped bolster the country at a turning point in World War II): the shot of six men, also poised atop rubble, raising the colors during a break in the battle for Iwo Jima, in 1945.
The Flag Photo would become the most widely reproduced news picture of the new century. It would grace a U.S. postage stamp, mistakenly touted as the first to depict living, identifiable human beings — reprinted 255 million times and used to raise more than $10 million on behalf of emergency workers and their families.
And yet, swirling just outside the frame was a tempest of contention and mystery. The frantic crush to embrace the image, and to wring revenue from it, would soon stand at odds with the picture's message of unity, endurance, and sacrifice. The photo's ubiquity would come to haunt the lives of the three firemen depicted. Legal wrangling surrounding the image would spur separate probes by the Fire Department and New York's attorney general. Even the flag itself would become ensnared in controversy — inexplicably misplaced, exchanged, hidden, or stolen (and still missing, to this day), somehow replaced by a larger flag, which was then shuttled around the world with a Navy escort.
"Anybody tells you they don't know where the [original] flag is," says a former high-ranking member of the NYPD, referring to his Fire Department counterparts, "they're full of shit. One of those three [firemen] has to know or somebody of authority [does]. Somebody has it and intentionally has not let it come [out]."
Such a notion is outrageous to Bill Eisengrein, one of the three flag raisers, who is quick to describe the chaos during that first week. "My fire helmet, a flashlight, and a pair of gloves," he says, were swiped from his fire truck in the morning hours of September 12. "So would I be surprised that a flag would be stolen, and maybe somebody has it in their closet somewhere? Not really, no."
The chaos argument doesn't sit well with Shirley Dreifus, the owner of the original flag, who tried to sue the city of New York to force them to find it. "The person who took it down knows he took it down and knows where it is," she says. (It was her chartered yacht, docked at a pier near Ground Zero, from which the flag had been removed by firefighter Dan McWilliams on the afternoon of 9/11.) "This was a guarded area. People were in charge of it. And you just don't take a flag down unless you know where it's going — or somebody told you to do it."
While the flag-raising picture would become America's photo — all Francis Scott Key and mournful bugles — the image, sub rosa, has lived out a fitful antilife, generating backstories myriad and strange, each more bizarre than the last. And the vignettes behind the photograph, many told here for the first time, speak volumes about what is truly decent, and what is rather despicable, in modern American life, media, and commerce.
Bagpipes played. Local notables gathered. The ceremony was solemn, decorous. It was Christmas week, three months after the attacks, and it would be the first sign that the photo, for all its healing properties, was also under the spell of the surreal.
At a Brooklyn podium stood the city's fire commissioner, Thomas Von Essen, his eyes moist. Fire captain James Graham was tearful too. "It wasn't a fire," he insisted. "It was an act of war." Yet there was an air of buoyancy as well. "[In] raising the flag," said Mayor Rudy Giuliani, three firefighters "have brought honor to the department, to their city ... and in a way in which they probably never understood at the time, lifted immediately the spirits of an entire country."
Front and center, under a large sheet of cloth, rested an eighteen-foot-tall clay model. Plans called for a bronze monument — of three firemen and a flag, inspired by the famous picture — to be installed outside FDNY headquarters the following April.
Then came the money shot. The fabric was tugged away as the TV cameras rolled. Reporters moved closer. And it was soon apparent to everyone that this was no faithful rendering of the photo. The firefighters' arms, observed Newsday, "appear[ed] more sinewy" than those in the picture. Their poses had been altered, their bodies trimmed down. In fact, their faces bore little resemblance to the three Brooklyn firemen. Instead, one was African-American, another Latino, a third Caucasian.
The figures, explained a spokesman, were "composites, intended to symbolize the entire FDNY." Commenting on behalf of the Vulcan Society, an organization of black firefighters, Kevin James said he hoped that "the artistic expression of diversity [would] supersede any concern over factual correctness."
The decision to alter the firemen's races had been made jointly among the Fire Department, the project's underwriter (developer Bruce Ratner), and the design studio. "Somewhere along the line," says Ivan Schwartz, director of the Brooklyn studio that created the prototype, he phoned his FDNY contacts and stressed that "three hundred forty-three firefighters of all races had died on that day. I raised the point to bring [to light] the issue of the long-term impact of memorializing all the people who died."
Schwartz says he also warned about the consequences of erecting too literal a memorial. The statue would be derivative of not one but two famous images, both of them known for sparking intense emotions. Perhaps they wanted a more metaphorical statue. Perhaps they wanted to slow down the project and arrive at a more cautious consensus. ("The main Civil War memorials," he now reflects, "didn't [emerge] until roughly fifty years later, once the veterans were dying off.")
Instead, Schwartz says, passions prevailed. The FDNY chose to hew to the flag-raising theme. What's more, they had "decided we should represent one [fireman as] black, one white, and one Hispanic." Schwartz's studio complied.
No one, however, had received permission from the three flag raisers. Or the photographer. Or the newspaper that owned the copyright to the picture.
The faux firemen created a firestorm. Members of the public — and of engine and ladder companies across the city — called the monument an example of "political correctness run amok." A petition drive conscripted many of the FDNY's rank and file, who clamored for the project to be quashed. ("The ... horrible events [must be] present[ed] accurately and truthfully," read one petition. "To depict [the flag raising] in any other manner sullies a historical and heroic act and desecrates hallowed ground.") Pundits joined the pile-on. Conservative commentator Jonah Goldberg asked, "Why not [convert the figures into] a Muslim woman in a floor-length burqa, a Chinese guy in a wheelchair, and a whole passel of midgets of various hues and nationalities?"
Two weeks after the ceremony, Schwartz, sitting in his Brooklyn studio, noticed a snowdrift of e-mails, piling up by the thousands, he later estimated. He was inundated with notes of protest, he says, that were filled "with all kinds of invective. Many were personal, like, 'Fuck you. How dare you put the head of a nigger on one of these heroes?'"
The fact that the original picture incorporated so many patriotic touchstones (the flag, the towers' rubble, the dust-daubed firemen as if risen from the ashes, the figures posed in the manner of the GIs from Iwo Jima) made its emotional resonance almost combustible, an extract of pure political dynamite. The proposed statue was perceived as blasphemous, even seditious, an attempt to co-opt and transmute the American values engraved in the picture.
The Bergen Record, which had the right to authorize all commemorative uses of the image, considered filing an injunction to stop the project. The attorney for the three firefighters implored the statue's creators to cease and desist. Dan McWilliams — the fireman who had come up with the idea of lofting the flag in the first place — confessed in a statement, released by the law firm of McCarthy & Kelly, to being "disgusted by the controversy ... because the flag-raising was supposed to promote harmony. It's just disgraceful that the country should be focusing on this. Guys are dying in Afghanistan and this is what we're fighting over?"
Plans for the statue were quietly scrapped. The model, which sat in the foundry for months, was destroyed: an ill-conceived prototype of a bronze replica of a photographic replica of a symbolic moment.
But the picture, from whence it sprang, pressed on.
Just before 9:00 a.m., a news editor had come running through the Bergen Record photo department, announcing that a plane had crashed into the Trade Center. Moments later, Thomas Franklin sped out the door with his digital camera gear, drove to Jersey City's riverside Exchange Place, and ditched his car. "It's absolute mayhem," he says. "People driving the wrong way down streets, people fleeing buildings. I'm like a fish swimming upstream." He scrambled on foot to the shore for a clear view of downtown Manhattan. From there, he would take pictures for more than two hours: of the towers' giant thunderheads, of boatloads of soot-cloaked workers, of injured firemen arriving from Manhattan by ferry.
During a testy encounter with a policeman, who kept insisting that bystanders evacuate the area, Franklin stood his ground, continuing to shoot. Suddenly, he says, the cop turned and shoved him against a lamppost, causing Franklin's Canon to jam and erasing all of his pictures. In an instant, every shot he had taken that morning had been electronically vaporized.
"I break down," Franklin says, remembering the tears. "I kneel on the ground, scrolling through my camera, trying to figure out what's wrong. I'm in despair, totally distraught. That's how my day began."
Franklin, thirty-five, sandy-haired and boyish, and a normally upbeat guy, felt out of his element. Though known for his resourcefulness, he wasn't a conflict photographer, by any means: the week before he had been in the Dominican Republic shooting a baseball story — about Danny Almonte, the twelve-year-old Bronx Little League star, originally from Santo Domingo, who turned out to be an imposing, fourteen-year- old pretender (with a seventy-mile-an-hour fastball).
Franklin managed to regain his composure and soldiered on, boarding a ferry and making his way to the smoke-shrouded city. He eventually maneuvered through security cordons to the heart of Ground Zero, where he would shoot all afternoon. With the day's light waning, Franklin stood near a first-aid station that had been set up at the corner of Liberty and West Streets. Dozens of firemen had gathered there, he says, stopping for water and receiving eyewashes to flush out the grit. Dust seemed to have settled on everything, even on the boats docked in the harbor at the nearby marina.
"It's approaching five o'clock," Franklin recalls. "The light's beautiful. But everything's gray from the pulverized debris in the air. I filled up virtually all my CompactFlash cards — my digital film. I have less than a hundred frames left and I'm thinking I need a game plan to get back to Jersey" — to hitch a boat ride across the Hudson and transmit his pictures to the paper. (Many of Manhattan's phone lines were disabled.)
Suddenly, the firemen and workers were told to flee. Seven World Trade Center, the forty-seven-story building right in front of Franklin, was on the verge of collapse. Franklin was about to make his move for the harbor.
Dan McWilliams, a firefighter from Brooklyn, was walking past the North Cove marina. There, gracing the stern of a yacht, was an American flag. McWilliams caught a glimpse of it and had a moment of inspired bravado. According to a friend of McWilliams's, the firefighter approached a policeman, who had been standing near the 130-foot Star of America. "I'm going to take that flag," McWilliams said. Then he simply helped himself to the banner, aluminum pole and all, wrapping it into a tight cylinder and heading in the direction of the downed towers, careful not to let the flag scrape the dust-caked street.
Walking toward Ground Zero, McWilliams enlisted George Johnson, a friend from his Brooklyn ladder company. In his typically taciturn manner, McWilliams said to Johnson, "Gimme a hand, will ya, George?"
"I knew exactly what he was doing," Johnson would later remark.
The two men then filed past Billy Eisengrein, from Brooklyn's Rescue Company No. 2 — an acquaintance of McWilliams's from their days growing up on Staten Island. Eisengrein asked, "You need a hand?" He fell in step with the others.
McWilliams realized that in order for the Ground Zero rescue crews to see it, the flag had to be placed on high ground. The men spied a large flagpole jutting up from the mangled steel, likely a vestige from the gutted Marriott Hotel. They walked onto an elevated platform, above the remains of a construction trailer, and converged on the pole. They detached a tattered green banner, damaged in the collapse. Then they removed the Stars and Stripes from the ship's staff and began securing the flag to the line.
Out of the corner of his eye, Franklin saw a flash of motion and color through the haze. "I see the three firemen fumbling with the flag," he remembers. He was standing across the street, a hundred feet away, talking to photographer James Nachtwey, of all people. "They look dusty and chalky. There's [supposedly] tens of thousands of people dead at this point. In this setting, at the time, my antennae are up: this is something I should be shooting."
He swiveled his 245-mm lens toward the action. "I almost missed the shot," he says. "I'm not quite sure whether the flag's going up or going down. They're not quite raising it. I'm anticipating."
Over the next minute and forty-five seconds, Franklin triggered twenty-four frames. In each shot the composition is confused, the figures clustered in odd ways. But in frame number fourteen, snapped at 5:01 p.m. — at a shutter speed of 1/640 of a second and an aperture of f9 — the elements align. "They're fussing with the flag," says Franklin. "The flag going up casts a shadow on the firefighter in the middle. And then I shoot it." All three men look up, the flag unfurls. The glare of the late-day sun highlights their figures against a curtain of wreckage, which rises above and behind them, slightly out of focus.
Johnson, in that instant, steps back, hands on his hips. McWilliams, in the center, and Eisengrein, to the right, work the halyard, lofting the colors up the pole.
Excerpted from The Flag by David Friend. Copyright © 2016 David Friend. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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