William “Billy” Eisengrein told ABCNews.com he and the two other firefighters in one of the most iconic images which came out of the 9/11 tragedy had no idea they were being photographed.
The picture of them hoisting the flag above the rubble, by photographer Thomas E. Franklin, may well be the most beloved and inspiring image from that terrible event.
Eisengrein, now 47 years old, is an FDNY veteran in his 26th year with the force. He said he can recall hearing that 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,” he said.
Eisengrein heard the news about the first plane hitting the World Trade Center while he was at his girlfriend’s home from television reports. After the second plane hit, Eisengrein hopped on his motorcycle and headed to the Brooklyn firehouse. He said he figured his bike would be the best way to get through traffic fast.
“I saw the plane crash into the tower, and I said, ‘Alright, I have to go to work,'” Eisengrein said.
Once he arrived at the scene, Eisengrein said he was sitting on the front bumper of a rig when he noticed two other firefighters were carrying a flag. One of them, his friend Daniel “Danny” McWilliams, and George Johnson, would soon be immortalized with him in Franklin’s stirring photo.
Firefighters George Johnson, left, of ladder 157, Dan McWilliams, center, of ladder 157, and Bill Eisengrein, right, of Rescue 2, raise a flag at the World Trade Center in New York. Photo by Thomas E. Franklin
They discovered a construction trailer with a big flagpole leaning against it.
“To this day I still receive phone calls, emails and letters from people telling me what the picture means to them,” Franklin said.
In the years after 9/11, Eisengrein and the other firefighters in the picture have passed on all interview requests.
“We’re pretty adamant about not letting that change who we are and what we are,” Eisengrein said. “Let the picture stand for itself.”
Eisengrein said he copes with the past and the memories of that day the way a lot of us deal with the frustrations and challenges in our lives – on the back of his motorcycle.
“I ride my motorcycle as much as possible,” said Eisengrein.
The firefighter has been a motorcycle instructor for the past six years and owns two Harley Davidsons. He said that on one recent weekend he went to Ocean City, Md., with a few friends from Islanders MC, a Staten Island motorcycle club.