The Flag That Helped a Nation Heal

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What is a flag? This is not as simple a question as it appears on first glance.

The literal definition is that it is a rectangular piece of cloth that is attached to a pole on one side. However, a flag can be so much more than that. It can have power beyond words. A flag can intimidate rivals, display an allegiance, show diplomacy. 

A flag can light a kindling of hope in a nation that has just been shaken to it’s very core. 

'Raising The Flag At Ground Zero'

September 11th, 2001. The mere mention of the date is enough to transport those old enough to remember it back in time. It was a day of shock, destruction and fear. People across the world came together in front of their television sets, unable to believe what they were witnessing. 

However, on September 12th, the newspapers ran a photograph on their front pages that would help replace terror with unity and defiance.

© Thomas E. Franklin / The Reporter

At around 5pm on 9/11, the dust from the collapsed twin towers was still heavy in the New York air, and the danger was by no means over. A firefighter named Dan McWilliams spotted an American flag flying from a boat near Ground Zero. He grabbed that flag, making sure it did not touch the ground, and enlisted the help of his colleagues George Johnson and Billy Eisengrein. Together, they found a flagpole that lay intact atop the debris of a building. Carefully, they raised the flag. 

The men did this without seeking an audience. They did not gather photographers and press to witness what they were about to do. A local photographer happened to be nearby at the time, and by sheer chance snapped a photo of the event. The firefighters were unaware the moment was caught on camera until they saw themselves splashed across the front page of almost every newspaper in the country. 

So why did they raise the flag at all? Amid the chaos, death and anguish, it simply seemed to them like the right thing to do. They wanted to give their fellow rescue workers a glimmer of hope, and they believed that the stars and stripes could do this. McWilliams noted afterwards that “every pair of eyes that saw the flag got a little brighter”. It is easy to believe, as the mere image of Old Glory being raised before a pile of debris is a powerful one. A short video of the event also exists, and can be viewed below.

The Image That Inspired

By the next day, the image of the three firemen had spread across the world. Newspapers ran it on their front pages, websites displayed it as a show of solidarity, and sadly some people tried to profit by printing it on t-shirts. However, all of those examples show just how powerful this image is. It showed that even in the face of great strife, America still stood together, ready to move forward. The nation had been hurt, but stood as strong as ever. 

The image is often used when remembering that fateful day for that reason. It is not one of hopelessness, but one of optimism. It is deeply entrenched in American culture to the point that it has been reproduced on coins, stamps, and even as a statue.

This one flag had given the world so much hope. The title of the statue depicting the event is named aptly, and perfectly encapsulates what this one small act achieved. It is named “TO LIFT A NATION”.

So on this 17th anniversary of the day that changed the world, let us remember the tragedy, mourn those who died and celebrate the heroes. And let us remind ourselves of the power of flags. One single rectangular piece of cloth embodied the resilience of an entire nation, and comforted it’s citizens when they needed it most. And that is what a flag is; whatever it is needed to be.

I am no more than what you believe me to be, and I am all that you believe I can be.
Franklin K Lane
Franklin K. Lane, US Secretary of the Interior
Speaking as the "Stars and Stipes", 1914
© Thomas E. Franklin / The Reporter

DISCLAIMER: An effort has been made to ensure all copyright owners are given due credit. No copyright infringement is intended. This article has been written and published with the sole intent of bringing to light an incredible story from one of the darkest days in modern history. Please consider donating to a charity that supports those still affected by the events of September 11th 2001. Find some examples below:

Thank you for reading, never underestimate the raw emotion that a flag can evoke.

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