Fact Check

WIll a NYC Firefighter Memorial Be Historically Inaccurate?

Has a memorial to New York City firefighters has been rendered in a historically inaccurate way?

Published Jan 16, 2002

Image Via Shutterstock
A memorial to New York City firefighters will be rendered in a historically inaccurate way.

A photograph of Dan McWilliams, George Johnson, and Billy Eisengrein raising a flag on a pole anchored in about 20 feet of rubble at the World Trade Center following the 9/11 attacks in 2001 touched us in a way comparable to how the famed picture of the Iwo Jima flag-raising stirred our parents' and grandparents' hearts in World War II:

WTC flag-raising photo

A rendition of the photograph cast in bronze was planned in late 2001 as a memorial to the hundreds of New York City firefighters who lost their lives on September 11. It was to have been placed in front of fire headquarters at the MetroTech Center in Brooklyn.

The controversial memorial would not have been historically accurate, however, as two of the three firefighters who raised the flag that day were to have been restyled as Hispanic and black figures in the 19-foot, $180,000 statue. The facial features of the actual firefighters were not going to be used — the artists had selected three professional models to pose for the piece, and the clay model unveiled in December 2001 reflected their interpretation of the famous Thomas E. Franklin photo.

The New York Fire Department initially defended the proposed statue design, saying it accurately represented the 343 department members killed in the attacks. "Ultimately, a decision was made to honor no one in particular but everyone who made the supreme sacrifice," said Frank Gribbon, a spokesman for the FDNY.

Clay rendition of photo

The "accuracy" of that representation was questionable: only 2.7% of the city's 11,495 firefighters are black, and 3.2% are Hispanic. Twelve of the 343 firefighters who died were black, and twelve were Hispanic.

Even while still in the planning stages, the memorial was already controversial. Those who viewed it as a monument to self-sacrifice embraced the racial adjustment, because to their minds the finished statue would better impart the message of everyone's striving together. Those who held that momuments and memorials to actual events and real people should be historically accurate rather than idealized versions were outraged by the proposed alteration.

The firestorm of public opinion resulted in the statue's donor, developer Bruce Ratner, scrapping plans for this particular testimonial to heroism.


Gaskell, Stephanie.   "Petition Protesting Firefighter Statue Is Circulated."     Associated Press.   15 January 2002.

Goldiner, Dave.   "Statue of Bravest Sparks Race Flap."     [New York] Daily News.   12 January 2002   (p. 4).

Guart, Al, Philip Messing, and Andy Geller.   "Monumental Change."     New York Post.   18 January 2002.

Murphy, Dean.   "Firefighters Statue to Be Erected Despite Criticism."     The New York Times.   13 January 2002   (p. A16).