ETHAN MILLER / LAS VEGAS SUN
Saturday, Sept. 10, 2011 | 2 a.m.
Alana Milawski doesn’t remember the day that made her famous.
Just 3 years old at the time, Alana was with her family at the Thomas & Mack Center for a candlelight vigil the night after the 9/11 attacks.
Perched on her father’s shoulders, waving an American flag, Alana was photographed by Las Vegas Sun photographer Ethan Miller.
No one could have guessed that the picture would be seen around the world, in magazines, on billboards and on the sides of buildings, or that it could bring so much hope to a grieving nation.
Ten years later, Alana is an eighth-grader at Sig Rogich Middle School in Summerlin.
She said she doesn’t tell many people about her role in the iconic photo. She says most people don’t believe her when she does.
Although she still has the same bright eyes and blond hair, she looks different from the girl in the picture.
It took her years to fully grasp her role in the nation’s healing, but now, 13-year-old Alana says she’s comfortable with her place in history.
“I feel really honored and blessed that I’m even brought up with all these great people who did great things (on that day),” she said.
Miller, the photographer, who still lives in Las Vegas but now works for Getty Images, said he shot more photos the night of the vigil than he can count.
Las Vegas was grieving along with the nation. The gathering at Thomas & Mack was one of many that took place across the valley as the community looked for healing. Thousands packed the parking lot, and Miller, seizing an opportunity, jumped onto a stage to try and get better shots of the crowd.
“I looked out onto this sea of people and all these flags, and there was Alana on her dad’s shoulders playing with this flag,” he said. “I was like ‘Oooh, that might make a good photo.’ ”
But he couldn’t get the shot he wanted. Either the waving flags were blocking a clear shot of Alana, or she kept looking away.
“Every now and then she would catch me shooting her and look over like, ‘What’s that guy doing?’ ” Miller said. “I literally got one frame, the flag unfurled, the other hand went up and she looked up … All the people underneath were sad adults. That was the one.”
Working for a newspaper, Miller knew he had to get Alana’s name for the photo to run in print. After the vigil, he rushed through the crowd of thousands in search of the girl and her father.
Somehow, he found them.
“That’s all I was thinking the rest of the event. ‘How am I going to get these peoples names?’ ” he said. “I thought I’d lost them, and then halfway through the crowd, I turned around and there they were.”
The photograph, which ran in the Las Vegas Sun on Sept. 13, was actually more profound than he might have imagined. It showed the diversity of the crowd, in age and by ethnicity, evidence of a broad-based community coming together. The day after that, it began a trip around the world after Reuters picked it up and put it on the international news wire.
The hope of a nation was captured in that moment, and news outlets began searching for the girl in the photo. Miller found himself playing gatekeeper, handling media requests to try and protect the family’s privacy.
But even his best efforts weren’t enough to keep away all the prying cameras. The publicity surged after the photo appeared on the cover of Newsweek’s Sept. 11, 2001, commemorative edition.
“There were a lot of TV crews,” Alana’s mother, Kat, said. “They found us at McDonald’s, at Best Buy. They came and camped all over the front lawn.”
The media attention today has subsided, but the angelic visage of 3-year-old Alana still lives on, in history textbooks, in calendars and on a planned memorial at a New Jersey Cemetery near the site of the World Trade Center attacks. The picture has even shown up on a commemorative pocketknife Alana’s grandparents found at a store in Arkansas. The family did not authorize that particular use.
That moment of serendipity sparked a lasting friendship between Miller and the Milawskis. They’ve since spent holidays together, met each other’s families, and catch up over dinner several times a year. Miller said he considers himself “a proud uncle” to Alana and her older sister.
Alana’s father, Craig, said the family feels “privileged that so many people have been touched so much by the photo. What came from the tragedy — the hope, the unity — we feel blessed and lucky to be a part of that … I wish people acted everyday today like they did the day after 9/11, because the world would be a better place.”