“I never cried on the job before, and I cried
a few times that day.”
Thomas Franklin was nearing the end of one of the most devastating days in American history.
The 38-year-old senior photographer for the The Record in Hackensack, N.J., was stunned, dirty and worried about the welfare of friends and even his own brother as he walked through the ruins of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
It was about 5 p.m. when he saw three firefighters, one of them carrying an American flag. Almost out of storage space for his digital photos, he shot 24 frames in two minutes.
Franklin's now-famous photo of the firefighters raising the flag amid the rubble became a national symbol of hope.
Franklin was in the Kansas City area this weekend for a regional conference of the Society of Professional Journalists. The conference was Friday and Saturday at the University of Kansas Edwards Campus in Overland Park.
Franklin, who talked about his experience in an interview Saturday, was one of hundreds of photographers covering the attack on the World Trade Center.
He had returned from an assignment in the Dominican Republic only 36 hours earlier and was sitting in a meeting at the newspaper when the first plane hit the north tower. The newspaper's offices are across the Hudson River from Manhattan. He could see the tower burning.
Franklin rushed out, shooting photos of survivors being evacuated across the river.
“It was all with the incredible backdrop of New York City in smoke and flames,” Franklin said.
By 2 p.m., Franklin and another photographer had talked their way onto a boat crossing the river to Manhattan.
Franklin continued to shoot photos through the afternoon.
“It was otherworldly; there was nothing recognizable,” Franklin said. “Everything was ash white, monochromatic, no color. It was eerily quiet.”
“I never cried on the job before, and I cried a few times that day,” Franklin said. “Much of the day is a blur to me.”
About 4:30 p.m., word went out to evacuate the area. Officials were worried that Building 7 of the Trade Center complex would collapse. Franklin decided to take one last walk through the rubble before trying to make his way back to the newspaper.
“That's when I saw these three firemen fumbling with the flag,” Franklin said.
He started shooting, and one frame became history. It showed firefighters Dan McWilliams, George Johnson and Billy Eisengrein.
“I knew I had a picture that was different than anything else I shot that day,” Franklin said. “But three guys raising a flag didn't instantly register as a historic moment.”
By midday Sept. 12, the newspaper had to hire seven persons to answer phone calls about the photo. Thousands of calls came in during the first few days.
The newspaper set up a charity for local families who lost relatives in the collapse. Fund-raising efforts, including sales of the photo, have raised about $3 million.
The photo was included on a U.S. Postal Service stamp, and those sales have raised about $10 million.
Franklin continues to make speeches about the photo. He also shoots sports and other news events for The Record and does a weekly photo essay. But things have changed.
“These days, rarely do I go to an assignment where people don't know who I am. With that recognition comes a certain amount of expectation.”
Franklin was the featured speaker at the Society of Professional Journalists Region 7 annual Mark of Excellence Awards dinner Saturday night at the Overland Park Marriott.
During the dinner, the society honored more than 100 student journalists and publications. Among them:
The Daily Nebraskan of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln was named best daily newspaper.
Holly Yan from the University of Missouri-Columbia won for best general news reporting in the newspaper category.
The Chart from Missouri Southern State University was named best nondaily publication.
Matt Marble and Dominick Scalise from Truman State University won for best general news reporting in the television category.
Brooke Wehner from the University of Kansas won for in-depth television reporting.
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Thomas Franklin, the photographer who shot the now-famous photo of three firefighters raising the American flag in the rubble of the World Trade Center, was in the Kansas City area Saturday.
The photograph, which has since been used on a U.S. Postal Service stamp, has raised millions of dollars for the families of victims.
More information about Franklin's photograph is online at www.groundzerospirit.org.