9/11 Firefighter Speaks With ABC News 10 Years Later

Billy Eisengrein, who raised a flag at ground zero, discusses famous photo.

September 6, 2011, 9:43 AM

Sept. 7, 2011— -- A New York firefighter who helped two others raise a U.S. flag at ground zero in what would become one of 9/11's most iconic images said in a rare interview they never intended to draw attention.

"We stood there and looked at it for a second and went about our ways," William "Billy" Eisengrein told ABCNews.com.

Eisengrein and the two other firefighters had no idea they were being photographed, but the picture of them hoisting the flag above the rubble quickly became well-known around the world.

Now, after years of silence, Eisengrein spoke about 9/11, and the "moment of time with three guys" that still remains a symbol of America's strength and resilience.

"From the moment the picture was published, it has lived a life of its own," said Thomas E. Franklin, who took the picture of the firemen for The Record, a daily New Jersey newspaper.

Today, Eisengrein -- pictured on the far right -- is 47 years old and still a firefighter. His arms are covered in tattoos: on his right, a clearly visible image of the Twin Towers, inked in 2002.

"It just seemed like the thing to do at the time," he said.

The FDNY veteran, now in his 26th year, clearly remembers the morning of 9/11. It was bright and sunny in New York City, and the sky was blue. Six men on their shift at Brooklyn Rescue Company 2, where Eisengrein has worked for 17 years, arrived at ground zero first and went to the North Tower. They all died, along with many more.

"I lost 100 friends that day," Eisengrein said.

He heard the news about the first plane hitting the World Trade Center while he was at his girlfriend's home, watching TV. And then the second plane came. That's when Eisengrein hopped on his motorcycle and headed to the Brooklyn firehouse, reasoning his bike would be the best way to navigate traffic.

"I saw the plane crash into the tower, and I said, 'Alright, I have to go to work,'" he said.

When he arrived at ground zero, at about 10:45 a.m., one of the most eerie parts, he said, was the "absolute silence" accompanying the dust and papers strewn throughout the downtown area. Around 5 p.m., after spending the entire day searching the pile, all emergency responders were told to leave, out of fear building 7 was going to come down.

Eisengrein was sitting on the front bumper of his rig when he noticed two other firefighters carrying a flag. One of them was his good friend, Daniel "Danny" McWilliams, now an FDNY lieutenant in Brooklyn in his 21st year with the department. The other person was someone Eisengrein didn't know at the time, but would soon be linked with for the rest of his life: George Johnson, who is now in his 20th year with the FDNY and a battalion chief in Brooklyn.

Both McWilliams and Johnson declined interviews with ABCNews.com.

As the story goes, McWilliams, who had grown up with Eisengrein on Staten Island, found the flag on a 130-foot yacht in the Hudson named "Star of America," owned by Shirley Dreifus of the Majestic Star Co. in New York. As soon as Eisengrein saw McWilliams, he said, "I knew he was going to put the flag somewhere."

He hollered out, "Do you need help?" then joined them in looking for a place to hang it.

A couple minutes later, they discovered a construction trailer on the northwest corner of Liberty and West, with a big flagpole leaning against it.

"So we put a piece of tin on the ground up to the trailer and hiked up that, and raised it," Eisengrein said.

At the time, he says, his thought process was simply, "This country got attacked, there's all this devastation, thousands of people died; let's do something good right now."

The whole thing took no more than five minutes, just long enough to be captured by The Record photographer Franklin.

After taking pictures all day, Franklin said, he had nearly run out of space on his digital camera when he saw the firefighters hoisting the flag.

"I was about 30 or 40 yards away," he said. "Then all of a sudden the flag starts to go up this pole. I shot a burst of frames. It was over like that."

Initially, The Record ran the photo without identifying the firemen. Franklin hadn't tried to interview them afterward.

"It was a serious, serious news situation," he said. "I didn't talk to them, they didn't talk to me. We walked right past each other."

But after releasing the photo to the Associated Press the morning of Sept. 12, 2001, the picture started getting more attention. The Record decided to find the firefighters, who said they were unaware they had been photographed.

"To this day I still receive phone calls, emails and letters from people telling me what the picture means to them," Franklin said, adding he had gotten a letter in August from a young boy in the Midwest who asked for his autograph. "For whatever reason, people connect with this picture, even 10 years later."

The picture has been featured on postage stamps, posters and even Christmas ornaments (Eisengrein's mother puts one on her tree every year). The image has also been molded into a 40-foot-high, bronze-and-steel sculpture unveiled in 2007 at the National Emergency Training Center, north of Washington, D.C.

As for the original photo, a Queens pharmaceutical executive bought the picture, signed by Franklin, in 2002. Stewart Rahr, president of KinRay, paid $89,625 for the image at a Christie's auction and hung the photograph in the lobby of his company's headquarters.

"There were so many amazing photographs made that day. It was probably the most photographed event in history," Franklin said. "So many [of them] are of the horrific nature of buildings, planes crashing into buildings -- thousands of people running for their lives. This is a picture that's really about the opposite, which is hope and strength, and solidarity."

The Firemen's Code

In the years after 9/11, Eisengrein and the other firefighters in the picture have declined nearly all interview requests, preferring to remain private.

Their decision stems, in part, from the photo's having been compared to the flag-raising at Iwo Jima, Eisengrein said, noting pointedly that most people in America can't name the men in that picture.

"We're pretty adamant about not letting that change who we are and what we are," he said. "Let the picture stand for itself."

Sean Nealon, 47, a former member of the Navy who has been with Rescue 2 for seven years, says it's still difficult to talk about 9/11, especially to those who weren't there.

"We talk about it amongst ourselves," he said. "I really can't describe the whole scene then, even 10 years removed."

Every year, on the 9/11 anniversary, a priest visits Rescue 2 and they hold a Catholic mass in the firehouse. They're planning to do the same this year.

At the firehouse, the men clam up at questions, wary of revealing too much about each other, or themselves. To do so would be frowned upon: You do not brag, or bask in your accomplishments. When asked about Eisengrein, after the guys exchanged a few jokes at Eisengrein's expense, Nealon would only say, finally, "He's a nice guy."

"These guys didn't do this because of the picture," he added. "I don't think anyone really feels what they did is deserving of the recognition. It's a team sport."

Firefighters' Charity: The Bravest Fund

Neither Nealon nor Eisengrein have suffered any 9/11-related health problems, but thousands of others did after inhaling the dust and debris. So during the fall of 2001, the three firefighters used money earned from licensing their photo to start a charity called "The Bravest Fund."

They're open to helping "pretty much anybody," Eisengrein said. They started out wanting to help emergency workers who operated at the World Trade Center, then broadened their mission, advertising by word of mouth. In some cases people were seeking help with unpaid medical bills.

"We've helped a lot of firefighters' families, a number of construction workers, and a few other people ... that knew we had this," Eisengrein said. "If there was money to be made, why not put it where we wanted?"

As of this year, Eisengrein said, they have given away more than $1 million dollars to people who have illnesses that aren't covered by insurance.

"There are only a few thousand dollars left," he said.

In 2004, then-Attorney General Eliot Spitzer's office examined the charity's use of its funds, but took no subsequent legal action.

Life After 9/11

Today, Eisengrein is still living in Staten Island, the same borough where he grew up. During his time off he practices carpentry, and recently finished siding a house.

But most of all, "I ride my motorcycle as much as possible," said Eisengrein, who has been a motorcycle instructor for the past six years and owns two Harleys. On a recent weekend he went to Ocean City, Md., with a few of the guys from Islanders MC, a Staten Island motorcycle club.

He hasn't gotten much attention lately, he said, but "every once in a while I get a letter from someone," often requesting an autograph.

When he looks back at 9/11, Eisengrein said, he doesn't think about the heroic gestures, he thinks about the lives lost -- all 2,973.

But he, McWilliams and Johnson are honored people have found the photo of their flag-raising reassuring. In the past 10 years, people have told Eisengrein time and again that the image helped them understand, "we as a country, were going to be OK."

"The three of us are very proud ... and honored to have been a part of that," he said.

Watch "Remembrance and Renewal: Ten Years After the 9/11 Attacks."

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