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From Pentagon Debris, Hope

Va. Cancer Patient Selling Flag on eBay To Cover Treatment

By Leef Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 4, 2005; Page B03

For a long time, David Nicholson credited luck for the 10 boxes of construction site debris that were brought to his Orange, Va., auction house in May 2002. Now he believes it was providence.

At first glance, he said, the boxes looked to contain assorted junk. Then Nicholson's father, John, spotted a crumpled American flag -- a banner, they learned, that was flying outside the Pentagon when terrorists crashed a plane into the building on Sept. 11, 2001.

David Nicholson, who is undergoing chemotherapy for kidney cancer, gets a hug from his wife, Elisha, in Fredericksburg, Va. Starting today, he is auctioning off the flag on eBay, with bids starting at $25,000. (Rebecca Sell -- The Free Lance-star Via AP)

Nicholson had the treasure framed in Plexiglas and turned down offers -- one for as much as $100,000 -- to buy it. "Never" is when he intended to sell it, he said.

But never has come sooner than he planned. At 4 p.m. today, the flag is scheduled to go up for auction on eBay, with the bidding opening at $25,000.

"I have no choice now," said Nicholson, 44, who suffers from advanced kidney cancer. He hopes the flag will bail his family out of the financial peril caused by his illness, help secure the future of his 6-year-old daughter, Alia, and fund research at the Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center in Durham, N.C., where he is being treated.

When the terrorists struck, the flag was flying from a construction crane, Nicholson said. It continued to fly as recovery crews combed through the rubble after the attack and was finally removed in May 2002 by a supervisor at Facchina Construction Co., who delivered several boxes of debris to Nicholson's auction house for him to sift through for sale or disposal.

Included in the auction package is a letter of authenticity from the construction company supervisor, Nicholson said.

The supervisor would not comment for this story. Nicholson said the supervisor sought yesterday to have the letter returned because he was reprimanded for writing it on the company's letterhead.

Pentagon spokesman Glen Flood said tens of thousands of tons of debris were disposed of after Sept. 11 by hundreds of contractors. "I have no way of verifying" the flag's provenance, Flood said.

Nicholson said the $100,000 offer came after he and the flag were featured on CNN. But despite a recent spate of high-profile eBay auctions -- the latest a sale to benefit the family of 9-year-old cancer patient David Dingman-Grover of Sterling -- Nicholson said he never thought of selling the flag.

He said his wife, Elisha, got the idea in January as she flipped through a magazine in a doctor's waiting room and saw an article about American flag collectors.

"It just hit me that . . . maybe we were supposed to do something with it," Elisha Nicholson said.

Yesterday she talked enthusiastically about raising enough money to fund new treatments for renal cell carcinoma, even a "shot in the dark" cure for the disease.

David Nicholson was more pragmatic. Prayer has given him more time on Earth than doctors expected when his illness was diagnosed in March 2004, he said. What he wants now is something no auction can guarantee, and that is more time with his daughter.

"Give me two more years so my daughter will remember me," he said. "If I can make it until she's 8, I won't be upset or mad."

Alia will turn 7 this month.

Nicholson's tumors have spread to his stomach and lymph nodes, but high-dose treatments of Interleukin-2, which racked Nicholson's body with a 105-degree fever and made his feet shed their skin over and over again, among other side effects, have helped shrink the tumors a total of 30 percent.

Although Nicholson has Stage 4 disease, which is often fatal, his oncologist, Jared Gollob, said it is still early in the treatment. "We hope that [treatment] will have an impact on how long he lives," Gollob said. "A cure isn't out of the question . . . but they are infrequent."

Nicholson said yesterday that if he can't deliver the flag himself, the winning bidder will have to collect it in person. He won't entrust it to a delivery truck.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company