Fireman fiction

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 6, 2002

A fireman who was at ground zero on Sept. 11, 2001 gets the attention of people when he tells his story, especially when he says he was one of the firefighters who raised the American flag in what is a now famous photo.

That is exactly what happened when Louis Esposito, who recently moved to Opp, told people he was the firefighter on the left in the photograph taken by Thomas E. Franklin. A student at South Highlands was so impressed, she asked him to speak to her class, and he did, showing the entire fourth grade a scar he said he got when he was hit on the wrist by a steel beam. He even displayed a badge that looked something like those worn at ground zero.

One problem, the firefighter in the picture is named George Johnson, not Louis Esposito, and he is still in New York working as a firefighter.

"The superintendent of education called and said this guy had been out and spoken to entire fourth grade," said Bill Shaw, Opp chief of police. "He identified himself as having been at the World Trade Center and pointed out to the children and teacher the stamp he said had his picture raising the flag. All of that is false."

Esposito also took his story beyond Opp's city limits, telling people in Andalusia and even in Florida about how he was pictured on the stamp.

Clay Elmore, who works at the Covington County Health Department, heard the story, but said he questioned the truth behind the tale.

"He came in for a water sample kit or something, and we got to talking," Elmore said. "He said he moved to Opp from New York, so I asked what brought him here."

That is when Elmore heard about Esposito's experience at the World Trade Center.

"He talked about being there and said he was one of the firemen on the stamp hoisting the flag," Elmore said. "Said he was upset by what he happened, he left. Something about his story didn't sound right to me."

Esposito, using a different name, stopped at the Mary Esther Post Office and told the same story.

According to a story in the Northwest Florida Daily News, Esposito told Diane Saunders, a sales and service associate at the post office, that he came to the beach there all the time.

While buying stamps depicting the flag-raising photograph, Saunders said Esposito let it drop that he was the firefighter on the stamp.

Saunders told Daily News reporter Wendy Victoria, she remembered how excited everyone was to meet a hero.

"We were shaking his hand and thanking him," she said. "It was like meeting a famous person."

According to the Daily News story, during his visit, Esposito allowed his picture to be taken with postal employees and answered questions freely. He also signed the poster, "Lou LaBosa, Engine Company No. 2, NYFD."

Postal employees didn't know it, but there is no Engine Company No. 2 in the New York Fire Department.

They did, however, have questions for him, some of the same ones Elmore had asked.

"We asked, why, of all places, did you move to Opp?' " Saunders recalled. "He said he wanted to be where the tallest thing was a pine tree.

"He said he was so affected (by the events of Sept. 11) that he wanted to pick up and move to the opposite end of the country," she said, using almost the exact words he said to Elmore.

A hero is also who the students at South Highlands thought they had met, and that Shaw said is the worst part of what Esposito did with his story.

"Grownups can weigh things out and decide the truth, but to address fourth graders and build yourself up as a hero …" Shaw said. "These kids took flyers home he had autographed."

Not only are the police and staff at the school upset with Esposito, but the New York City Fire Department is also unhappy.

"To say they are upset is an understatement," Shaw said. "We have been in contact with them and they are not happy."

In a statement to the Florida paper, Amanda Schmidt, spokeswoman for the New York Fire Department said, "We have zero tolerance for people trying to impersonate firefighters at a time like this. It's taking advantage of people's spirit."

Shaw said the truth in Esposito's story was that he was at the World Trade Center.

"He has been interviewed by a detective and admitted the story wasn't true," Shaw said. "The only part true that was true was he was apparently at the World Trade Center working with heavy equipment moving debris."

It was reported in the Northwest Florida Daily News that a records search revealed Esposito worked at the now defunct Southland Express trucking company in Lawrenceburg, Tenn. Company officials told the paper he was employed there for about six months in 1997-98.

The company let him go on Jan. 23, 1998, after Esposito was arrested in another state for tire theft. The story also said an Internet records check indicated he served 22 months in prison from 1990-92 after being convicted by a New Jersey jury of aggravated assault. It said he was also convicted of several counts of robbery in July 1989, though it was not clear whether he served time.

"He said he was going to the local paper and have an apology printed," Shaw said. "He hasn't violated any of our statutes yet, but he has come close. Certain criteria have to apply and had he reached the full criteria, he would have been charged with impersonating a public servant."

Meanwhile, Shaw is concerned about the students at South Highlands and how this will affect them.

"My personal advice to the school was not to address students yet," he said. "Once you create a hero, and then you tear him down; that has got to be approached carefully."