Photographer Tom Franklin wasn’t even supposed to be in the newsroom that morning.
He’d been in the Dominican Republic for a baseball project and had stopped by to talk to his editor at The Record, a newspaper then based in Hackensack, New Jersey, and now part of the USA TODAY Network. They were discussing the assignment when someone interrupted with the news that a plane had hit one of the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center.
Franklin joined the rush of journalists to Jersey City to document history from across the Hudson River. He’d spend most of the day with a clear view of the Manhattan skyline, before boarding a boat to lower Manhattan.
One of the images he captured that afternoon would become among the most recognizable photos in history.
He saw firefighters “fumbling” with an American flag near where the Twin Towers had fallen and fired off a burst of photos.
The photo of the three firefighters raising that flag in a show of fortitude and respect, against a backdrop of unfathomable devastation, has become one of the most identifiable images taken on September 11, 2001. It permeates social media each anniversary. It’s been recreated for calendars and ended up on shirts. It was even made into a postage stamp.
“This photograph was the viral photograph before there were viral photographs,” Franklin said. “We saw evidence of it at The Record. People just wanted to use it and use it in every way imaginable.”
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‘Gaping hole in one of the towers’
It was unusual for Franklin, who was working mostly sports assignments at the time, to be in the office before 9 a.m. but on that Tuesday he was in the photo department when a newsroom editor came running in with the news.
“We were on the fourth floor in Hackensack so I could very clearly see the World Trade Center from the office and I saw this large, gaping hole in one of the towers,” Franklin said. “I grabbed my gear and ran down to my car. I called the photo [deputy] editor, Steve Auchard, and told him I was headed toward the city.”
During the drive Franklin realized that he wouldn’t be able to get across the Hudson River into Manhattan, so he rerouted to Jersey City. He documented the scene as people were brought across by boat. Later in the morning, injured people, covered in dust, began arriving.
Cell service was spotty at best, but Franklin found a phone and called into the office. He was told to head into Manhattan if he could. He ran into a freelance photographer who had worked for The Record named John Wheeler. Wheeler knew a police official in Jersey City and managed to secure them both passage on a boat going into Manhattan. Franklin recalled it as a tugboat.
“There are several moments throughout that day that really crystallize in my mind, and being on that boat was definitely one of them,” Franklin said. “I had limited cell service. There were no smartphones back then. I really had very little information to go on, so when I was on that boat I was really preparing myself for what I was about to see when I got off the boat there.”
Franklin noted that and he was still “unaware of how many people died” and “what was the cause of this disaster” because there was no social media to consult and most people were getting updates by watching television.
The boat’s captain gave Franklin a paper mask and a bottle of water and told him to be careful as he disembarked in Manhattan.
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Time at Ground Zero
That afternoon, Franklin captured images of wreckage and debris and first responders looking for survivors.
After several hours, the search was ordered to stop. World Trade Center Building 7, which sat adjacent to the towers, was compromised and expected to collapse. The search and rescue workers were moving to a safer corner at what was now being called Ground Zero, Franklin said.
It was nearing 5 p.m. and Franklin was running out of digital space, forced to repeatedly delete images to make room for more. Franklin was down to only one camera during his time in lower Manhattan after he had been jostled by a police officer and one of his cameras hit a lamp post while still in Jersey City.
“While I was doing this I saw these three firemen fumbling with the flag, getting ready to raise it,” he said. “It didn’t immediately register to me what they were about to do, but I knew it seemed significant. So I moved into position where I could observe what they were doing … then very quickly, in a short burst, they hoisted the flag up a pole and I shot a burst of photographs.”
Franklin knew the photo looked good but it “didn’t really stand out in any way,” compared to everything else he had photographed.”
“It wasn’t until much later that I really learned the significance and how unique the photo of the flag being raised was,” he said.
The firefighters climbed down from the platform they were on, while Franklin climbed up. While they moved past each other, there was no interaction. Franklin captured a few more images, including a dramatic shot of the raised flag flying. And that was it. With a day’s worth of pictures and a looming deadline, Franklin made his way back to the river to talk his way onto a boat out of Manhattan.
He ended up on a police boat headed to Jersey City, and after dodging the decontamination site, hitchhiked back to his car. He got his laptop and set up shop in a nearby hotel lobby to transmit the photos to his editor.
“After I had finally gotten a chance to sit down at my computer and edit my pictures that day, it did strike me as eerily similar to Joe Rosenthal’s photograph from Iwo Jima. It really was coincidental,” Franklin said.
In the days before Wi-Fi, image files had to be sent one at a time. Each time he identified a good picture, he would caption it before sending it, and while that was going through he would prepare the next one. The flag-raising was one of his last photos.
“By the time I had gotten to it I recognized that it was symbolic and I recognized that it was kind of a special thing but it didn’t really register with me until I had transmitted it and Rich Gigli, the photo editor called me,” Franklin said. Gigli wanted to know who the firefighters were, but Franklin didn’t know. They were later identified as George Johnson, Dan McWilliams and Bill Eisengren, members of a Brooklyn firehouse.
After the photo was published the next day, The Record was inundated with calls, many from people wanting to license and republish the photo. The calls kept coming for months.
“I was handling a lot of those calls myself but for me, I’m a photojournalist and here was the story of our lifetime and I was insistent upon covering assignments,” Franklin said. “We had over 300 people in our readership area at The Record die and so those were all stories that needed to be told and that to me was the most important.”
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Photo has lasting impact
The photo appeared on the cover of the New York Post later that week, which Franklin calls a “real catalyst of attention.” A media frenzy erupted, and Franklin appeared on the “Today” show later that week.
Franklin was a guest at the Oval Office in March 2002 when then-President George Bush announced that the photograph would be made into a postage stamp.
“It’s really hard for people, or even me for that matter, to remember just the frenzy that there was about this picture in the months after 9/11,” he said. “In Times Square on every street corner, there were people selling copies of my photograph. I mean there were people trying to sell me copies of photographs that I took.”
Bizarre licensing requests came in. People sought to put the image on eggs, light switches, seat cushions and cigar humidors as well as buttons and T-shirts.
The Record set up a foundation within hours of its publication, with a committee to make decisions based on what would be an appropriate use of the photograph. Franklin himself was adamant that the photo should be used for journalistic, not commercial, purposes, and some charitable uses.
Even so, Franklin calls it the “most violated copyright in history” because “every year on social media people will post that photograph as their status for the day.”
“The photograph is really about one thing for me and it’s a symbol of three firemen raising a flag in an act of solidarity and unity in the wake of the most horrible attack and tragedy in our country’s history,” he said. “Years later and I still get letters from people, not as many as I used to but I still get them, people will tell me that the photograph makes them think of a lost loved one or reminds them of their patriotism or their faith in our country.”
Follow reporter Katie Sobko on Twitter: @katesobko
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