Bob Beckwith, a retired firefighter from Long Island who aided in the search for survivors after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and who was catapulted to fame after photographs showing him and President George W. Bush standing atop the rubble-strewn remains of a fire truck became symbols of the stunned nation’s grit, died on Sunday in Rockville Centre, New York. He was 91.
Beckwith died in hospice care after being treated for cancer, his grandson Matthew said.
After the attacks, Beckwith had put on his old leather helmet and uniform and joined a brigade to clear debris at ground zero. When Bush visited the site on September 14, Beckwith climbed atop the destroyed fire truck to get a better view of the command centre where the president was supposed to speak.
Then, he was asked by Karl Rove, the deputy White House chief of staff, and Secret Service agents to climb atop the truck and jump on it to test its stability. He did, and was then asked to come down. But instead of going to the command centre, the president climbed aboard the wreck and invited Beckwith to share the spot, and the historic moment, with him while he addressed emergency service workers.
Beckwith handed the president a bullhorn, but some of the workers complained that they couldn’t hear. “I can hear you, the rest of the world hears you,” Bush shouted to the crowd in a rousing address beamed on live TV. “And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”
The crowd responded by chanting “USA! USA!”
By the time Beckwith returned home to the New York town of Baldwin later that day, he was a neighbourhood hero. After a photograph of the moment appeared on the front page of The Daily News the next morning and another one of the same scene made the cover of Time magazine a few days later, he had been transformed from a firefighter living a quiet retired life into a stoic paradigm of New York City’s resilience and America’s fortitude.
Beckwith spent only one day volunteering at the site – he had defied his family by going in the first place – and afterward friends warned him that a man nearing 70 was in no condition to endure the backbreaking work that would continue for months. But instead of returning to retirement, he became something of a celebrity and a spokesman for numerous charities, the New York Firefighters Burn Centre Foundation in particular.