Ground Zero Flag Heading Back to New York

The flag that three weary firefighters raised from the ruins of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 was returned to them Tuesday in a solemn ceremony aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt.

The flag had been sent to the aircraft carrier in October as the ship steamed toward waters near Afghanistan, and was given back as the Roosevelt headed home. The flag flew on the carrier and six other ships in the war against terrorism.

As one sailor sang the Navy Hymn, three other sailors handed the folded flag to two of the three New York City firefighters, George Johnson and William Eisengrein, who hoisted the flag at ground zero. The image was captured in a newspaper photograph seen around the world.

"This is truly a humbling experience," Johnson told the Roosevelt crew. Johnson then presented a fire chief's helmet to Rear Adm. Mark P. Fitzgerald, commander of the Theodore Roosevelt's battle group, as the crew cheered.

The carrier, which was due to return Wednesday to Norfolk, was about 300 miles off the Virginia coast during the brief ceremony Tuesday. About 60 aircraft took off from the deck Tuesday and headed to their bases in Virginia, South Carolina, Florida and Washington state.

About 5,500 sailors and Marines are aboard the Roosevelt, which departed Norfolk, Va., on Sept. 19 in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

"I'm sure they all left with a little trepidation as to what was going to happen out here," Fitzgerald said. "They rose to the task."

Petty Officer 3rd Class Willie Price, 27, of Oceanside, Calif., was to be among the first allowed off the ship Wednesday. He is one of about 50 sailors who had a child born while he was at sea.

"I can't wait," Price said. "I don't think I'm going to sleep at all tonight."

The New York delegation in the flag ceremony included police from New York City and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Several New York members of Congress also attended the service, as did House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

The third firefighter, Daniel McWilliams, could not make it to the ship because he attended the funeral of a firefighter who died in the attack, said Michael J. Handy, military liaison for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The flag was signed by New York Gov. George Pataki and former Mayor Rudolph Giulani on Sept. 23 before it was presented to Adm. Robert J. Natter, commander in chief of the Atlantic Fleet. Natter directed that it be sent to the Roosevelt.

"I will never forget the smoky odor as the flag was unwrapped in my office," said Capt. Richard J. O'Hanlon, the Roosevelt's commanding officer.

The flag is to be displayed in a place of honor in New York; the location has not been decided, Handy said.

After the ceremony, Handy presented another flag to the Roosevelt crew: the flag of New York City.

"We are sorely wounded in the city of New York," Handy said. "And one of the real inspirations has been over the months to watch you go off to sea, to watch you go off to war and protect us."