A yellow firefighter's helmet that was purported to have been found at the World Trade Center after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and offered for sale on eBay actually belonged to a former member of the Purcellville Volunteer Rescue Squad, the squad said.
Officials at eBay pulled the hat from the auction Monday because it violated the Web site's policy of banning anything taken from the rubble of Sept. 11 disaster sites, said Hani Durzy, a spokesman for the online auction site. Durzy said it was impossible to know how long the helmet had been for sale, but a Web page cached on the Internet indicated it was posted last Sunday night.
People who took part in online chats at Firehouse.com, a Web site aimed at firefighters and other rescue personnel, traced the helmet to other items on eBay and were able to determine the seller's name. A reporter for Firehouse.com used a Web search to link that person to Purcellville's rescue squad, which is Company 14 in Loudoun.
"We confirmed it had high probability of being one of our helmets," said rescue squad President Robert W. Ritchie. He said photographs of the helmet on eBay show it bears a number "4" and the shadow of where a "1" had been, and otherwise resembles the squad's helmets.
Ritchie said the man identified by Firehouse.com served with the squad for more than four years and did not turn in his helmet when he left in December 2002. He declined to identify the member or provide details about his tenure, citing the confidentiality of personnel files. Ritchie said the helmet and other gear were returned Tuesday.
The squad, which has about 40 members, provides 24-hour emergency medical response services to the western Loudoun communities of Purcellville, Lincoln, Hillsboro and Philomont, and takes more than 1,000 calls a year.
The controversy surrounding the helmet comes amid a wider discussion regarding the appropriateness of buying and selling Sept. 11 artifacts. In recent days, an Orange, Va., man attracted criticism from some victims' families after posting on eBay a flag he said had flown at the Pentagon on the day of the attacks, a claim that was later contested. The flag was purchased by Loudoun School Board Chairman John A. Andrews II (Potomac) for $25,000.
A person who claimed via e-mail to a Washington Post reporter to be the seller of the helmet and a former member of the squad apologized for the posting. The writer of the e-mail would not give a name, and The Post could not verify that it was indeed the seller.
"i am truely sorry to those offended by this tasteless joke, including the officers of PVRS," the e-mail message said. "it was not in my intentions to draw so much attention and create so much chaos."
The person said it was "a tasteless joke blown way out of proportion" that was inspired by seeing the flag that supposedly flew Sept. 11 at the Pentagon selling on eBay for tens of thousands of dollars.
Todd McBride, a lieutenant with the volunteer fire department in Danbury, Iowa, and a regular participant on Firehouse.com, said that when he heard about the helmet auction he attempted to determine the identity of the seller.
McBride tried to buy a commemorative bracelet on eBay from the same seller, and he said he was given a name and address in Leesburg before eBay voided the sale.
Selling a helmet as though it belonged to someone who lost his life on Sept. 11 "disrespects everybody that did die," McBride said. Relatives of those who died at the Pentagon have also decried the selling of the flag as disrespectful.
Andrews, who owns a development company in Ashburn, said that while he understands the criticisms, his purchase will ensure the flag is kept off the marketplace. He said he would donate the flag to Newton-Lee Elementary School, which will open in Ashburn in August and is named after two Loudoun men who died on the airplane that crashed into the Pentagon.
"When you name the school, 40 or 50 years later, people don't remember who it's named after. Who's Newton and who's Lee?" he said. "I thought by having a display, where it would become part of history, but it'd also be there in perpetuity, it symbolized the sacrifices residents of Loudoun County made that day. "
Andrews said he had not spoken to Amy Newton or Jungmi Lee, whose husbands, Christopher and Dong, respectively, were passengers on American Airlines Flight 77.
Andrews said he requested anonymity from flag seller David Nicholson because he did not want anyone to think his donation was a publicity stunt, but Nicholson violated their agreement by revealing his name to The Washington Post.
"I thought if this was going to be sold, the best place it could go would be a school where it could educate people," he said.
Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III said the school system would likely accept the flag. He said school officials had not spoken to the two women but likely would before deciding how to display the flag.