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Remembering 9/11

Photography professor’s photo became an iconic symbol of hope in a dark time

Posted in: Faculty Voices, Homepage News

Thomas Franklin holding his camera in front of one of his framed works
Photography professor Thomas E. Franklin with his iconic 9/11 photo that is now a U.S. postage stamp.

Editor’s note: Assistant Professor Thomas E. Franklin wrote the following piece about his remembrances of 9/11 in 2008 for The Record (, where he worked while covering 9/11. His photo was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2002 and was made into a United States Postal Service fundraising Heroes stamp. Proceeds have generated over $10 million dollars for those affected by 9/11. The following remembrance also served a voiceover for this video.

Late on the afternoon of September 11th 2001, I made a photograph of three firefighters raising a flag amid the rubble of the World Trade Center.

For many, the image has become a symbol of that tragic day. From the moment it was first published in The Record, it has made its way into the public consciousness.

For me, it was something that just happened, a moment to which I was witness. I shot it the best I could and moved on.

The events of that day, and the other photographs I made, are every bit as vivid and significant to me. And they always will be.

I remember the chill I felt shortly after 9 a.m. as I rode the elevator from the fourth floor at The Record in Hackensack and saw the burning north tower across the Hudson.

I recall my despair after losing my last shots of the World Trade Center still standing as two towers. They disappeared when a policeman jostled me, jarring my digital camera.

I remember my stunned disbelief as the first and then the second tower collapsed amidst a dense cloud.

From where I stood, the enormous eruption blocked out an otherwise brilliant blue sky, as the towers seemed to fall without a sound.

I remember hiding behind my camera as I made pictures of injured victims being treated at a triage center at Exchange Place in Jersey City. I peered through the viewfinder, tears filling my eyes and streaming down my cheek.

I recall the adrenaline rush I felt as a tugboat ferried me from New Jersey toward the burning skyline, toward a cityscape I longer recognized.

I remember the silent pep talk I gave myself as I got off that boat. My job was to document and record history, not to become emotionally impaired. I needed to stay focused.

I still can’t comprehend the devastation I found. The fallen towers I had made so many pictures of since I was a child were now a huge mound of mangled metal and ash. Only a few strands of the façade remained intact.

I made pictures of two firemen hopelessly trying to douse the smoke with a faint stream of water – the facade looming behind them like a ghost.

Then I made my way around the perimeter, trying to stay clear of the firemen and rescue workers.

But it was so disorienting. West Street was here? The Trade Center plaza was there?

Where was I? The dust turned everything gray. It filled the air and littered the landscape with calculators, shoes, framed photos, couch cushions, and financial reports.

I made images of firemen searching for survivors and of people transfixed by shock. I climbed and slid around shards of metal and mounds of crumbled material, at times standing ankle-deep in water.

At about quarter to five, the firemen and rescue workers began evacuating the ground zero area.

Building 7 was about to collapse – the very same building I was standing near just a few hours earlier.

I followed them a block west to a first-aid area, where food and drinks were available. There were hundreds of firemen and rescue personnel there.

It looked like a wake. Everyone was quiet, with their heads down.

But it was getting late. I knew I needed to get back to my car parked in Jersey City as soon as possible. I had only a few frames left on my camera and a whole day’s worth of pictures recorded.

Before I left, I decided to take one last look, so I walked back into Ground Zero.

That’s when I saw the firemen with the flag, and a flagpole wedged at an odd angle atop a pile of rubble about 15 feet high.

I waited, unsure what was happening.

“Hey, come see this,” I called to another photographer.

Just then the fireman in the center, Dan McWilliams, hoisted the flag up the pole. His colleagues, George Johnson and Billy Eisengrein, looked on.

I was about 30 yards away. I pointed my zoom lens and shot a burst of frames as the flag went up.

I ran over to where they were, but by then the firefighters had climbed down and walked past me.

It was over that quickly. I don’t think New York’s bravest had any idea that their spontaneous act of patriotism was being photographed.

I do recall recognizing the obvious similarity to Joe Rosenthal’s Iwo Jima image, and I certainly was aware of the symbolism happening before my eyes.

But there was no way to predict its broader impact. I made a few last photographs of the flag flying, with the Trade Center wreckage in the background. Then I hitched a boat ride back to Jersey.

I didn’t cover any of the Ground Zero search and recovery, or venture back to lower Manhattan to steal a peek. My first return was while covering the first anniversary.

That day, I made my way down into the pit where a wicked wind cruelly greeted thousands of weeping loved ones. Again, I remember shooting through tears. This was far more difficult than 9/11. The emotion was so raw and vast.

I didn’t stay long. But before I left, I made some photos of an extended family wearing the same shirt. “We love you Jim,” was printed on the back.

I didn’t talk to them. I just quietly observed with my camera.

Later that day, I learned that Jim was James Brian Reilly, a young bond trader working in the south tower.

Shortly after he called his father to assure him he was safe on the 89th floor, a 2nd plane slammed the WTC ending his young life.

I also learned something else: It turns out he was the only victim of the 9/11 attacks who graduated from my high school, Walt Whitman HS in Huntington NY.

For me, the story of 9/11 is far reaching and its effect immeasurable. On this 7th anniversary, I still struggle to find some meaning to it all.


By Assistant Professor Thomas E. Franklin, 9/11/2008