NEW YORK – A decision to depict firefighters of different races in a memorial statue — based on the famous photograph of three white firefighters raising an American flag at ground zero — has drawn criticism from some who call it an attempt to rewrite history.
The 19-foot-high bronze sculpture recalls the scene photographed on Sept. 11 by Tom Franklin, of The Record of Bergen County, N.J., when New York City firefighters Dan McWilliams, George Johnson and Billy Eisengrein anchored a flagpole in about 20 feet of rubble at the World Trade Center.
FDNY spokesman Frank Gribbon said a statue representing firefighters who are white, black and Hispanic more accurately represents the 343 department members killed in the attacks.
"Given that those who died were of all races and all ethnicities and that the statue was to be symbolic of those sacrifices, ultimately a decision was made to honor no one in particular, but everyone who made the supreme sacrifice," Gribbon said.
But many firefighters and their relatives were upset by the decision.
Tony Marden, of Ladder 165 in Queens, called it "an insult to those three guys to put imaginary faces on that statue. It's not a racial thing. That shouldn't even be an issue." He said witnessing the flag-raising made him realize that Sept. 11 "was a national tragedy."
Of the city's 11,495 firefighters, 2.7 percent are black and 3.2 percent Hispanic, Gribbon said. Twelve of the firefighters who died were black; the number of Hispanic victims was not immediately available.
A clay model of the statue, created by StudioEis in Brooklyn, was unveiled on Dec. 21. Studio director Ivan Schwartz said the decision to portray different races was made by the fire department, the property owners, the studio and the foundry.
Both Schwartz and Gribbon said the statue, while based on Franklin's photograph, was not meant to be an exact replica.
The photo, seen around the world, captures a scene strikingly similar to the 1945 Associated Press photograph of six American fighting men struggling to raise the flag at Iwo Jima during World War II.
"The symbolism is far more important than representing the actual people," said Kevin James, a member of the Vulcan Society, which represents black firefighters.
"I think the artistic expression of diversity would supersede any concern over factual correctness," he added, citing the city's struggle for healing and reconciliation since the attacks.
But others felt the event should be represented as it happened.
"They're rewriting history in order to achieve political correctness," said Carlo Casoria, who lost his firefighter son, Thomas.
Gribbon said the department had not received any official complaints about the statue, but John Gilleeny, a retired New York City firefighter who edits an e-mail newsletter about the fire department, said he has received hundreds of e-mails protesting the decision.
The statue is expected to be placed at FDNY headquarters in Brooklyn this spring. The $180,000 piece is being paid for by Forest City Ratner Companies, which owns the property.
"Questions about race or ethnicity played no part in the brave deeds firefighters performed on Sept. 11, and it does a disservice to the memory of the thousands lost on that day to raise such issues," said Bruce Ratner, president and CEO of the property management and development company.
The three firefighters in the photo declined to comment, but their attorney, Bill Kelly, said the men are "disappointed because it's become something that is political as opposed to historical."
Kelly said he had written to Forest City Ratner and the FDNY asking them to stop production of the statue. Franklin did not return a call for comment.
"We were quite shocked that the image was altered," said Jennifer Borg, attorney for North Jersey Media Group, which publishes The Record and holds the copyright for the picture. The FDNY sought rights to reproduce the photo, she said, but the company did not sign any agreement.