(NEW YORK) -- 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 that the trio never intended to draw attention.
"We stood there and looked at it for a second and went about our ways," William "Billy" Eisengrein told ABC News.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Initially, the newspaper ran the photo without identifying the firemen -- Franklin hadn't tried to interview them afterward. 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. "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. 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.
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