An Unchanging Symbol

By Rev. Jim Van Houten


Following the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11th 2001, three New York City firefighters, led by Dan McWilliams, removed an American Flag from a yacht docked near by, and raised it over the remains of those twin towers. As they were raising it, a photographer named Bob Ivry snapped their picture. Within hours it was picked up by the wire services and was on the front page of almost every newspaper in America. Over night the flag became famous and was destined to take its place alongside Francis Scott Key’s Star - Spangled Banner and the flag raised over Iwo Jima. Both of these famous flags stood as a symbol of sacrifice and triumph. The Ground Zero flag had touched the hearts of millions and stood as an emblem of the loss and heroism of the firefighters and officers of the FDNY that horrible day.


This flag was taken into battle a few months later; it was raised over several of our war ships off the coast of Afghanistan. It was returned to the states in March of 2002, and it began its tour of our country, being raised over firehouses and police stations. Where ever it was displayed, it brought with it a sense of pride. At last it was returned to its original owners to be raised over their yacht one last time, after which it’s owners were donating it to the Smithsonian Institute. But as it was about to be raised: they discovered that this wasn’t their flag! The flag which had flown over their yacht measured 3 feet by 5 feet and the flag returned to them measured 5 feet by 8 feet. The flag returned to them had been signed by mayor Rudolph Giuliani and many other dignitaries who visited the ground zero site less than two weeks following the attack. But someone had switched the flags within the first few days. The original flag had been stolen and perhaps will never be recovered. A Symbol held in such high esteem has been tarnished and changed.


Centuries ago a group of Crusaders, know as the Knights of St. John felt called into service to save the lives of many of their comrades in arms.


The Saracen’s were using a new weapon; glass bombs filled with naphtha which were thrown at the advancing knights, once saturated with the liquid, a torch was used to ignite the naphtha.


Hundreds of knights were burned alive; but the knights of St. John risked their lives to save their brothers from this painful fiery death. These men became our first firefighters, risking their own lives to save the lives of others.


The efforts of these brave men were recognized by the other crusaders and each hero was awarded a badge of honor, a cross similar to the one firefighters wear today. The Knights of St. John were from the island of Malta and so this badge of honor became known as the Maltese Cross. For centuries it remains unchanged! It still stands as a symbol of protection, and the person wearing it still stands ready to lay down their lives for others. Firefighters like unchangeable symbols!


As a chaplain in the fire service I have found another unchangeable symbol; for me it’s the bible, God’s Holy word. It provides all who read it with the guidance to direct the course of our lives and the wisdom and understanding to overcome whatever problems we may face.


It’s an unchangeable book telling us about the unchangeable Love of an unchangeable God. As a firefighter, that gives me a sense of both peace and security. And as a chaplain I have found that it brings both peace and blessings into our lives. It’s a symbol that we in the Fire Service can always count on. My prayer each day is that the Lord will both protect and bless every Fire Chief and firefighter in our State and also their families.


About the Author:

Rev. Jim Van Houten has served as a firefighter and chaplain of the Walden Fire Department for the past 28 years and also serves as chaplain for the Montgomery and Coldenham fire Departments. He is presently serving as a chaplain with the OCVFA, the HVVFA, Royal Order of the Red Vests, the Red Knights and FASNY. He has been a Director and historian of the NYSAFChaplain’s for the past ten years.