The firefighter who became a symbol of New York resilience in the dark days after 9/11 passed away on Feb. 4 at the age of 91.
Robert “Bob” Beckwith, was already a retired FDNY firefighter, when he stood next to President George W. Bush only days after the 9/11 attacks as the president delivered what is viewed as his most moving speech ever standing atop a collapsed fire truck amid the rubble of ground zero.
“Bob Beckwith was one of many retired FDNY members who responded to the World Trade Center site in the days and months following September 11, to aid in rescue and recovery, as a testament to their devotion of their FDNY family,” said Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanaugh. Beckwith had joined the FDNY in 1965 where he was assigned to Ladder 117 in Queens. He then transferred to Ladder 164 in Douglaston, Queens until his retirement in 1994.
Seven years after his retirement from his thirty-year career, the World Trade Center was attacked. At the time, he had been enjoying his retired life on Long Island. On the day of the attack, Beckwith had been in the hospital, waiting for his grandson who had been hit by a car. After seeing the news on the waiting room television, Beckwith dressed in his old uniform and rushed to aid in search and rescue missions in Lower Manhattan.
Three days later, President Bush arrived on the scene to deliver a speech. In an effort to find the best possible viewing spot of the President, Beckwith climbed atop a ruined fire truck. a Secret Service agent approached Beckwith and inquired whether the truck was safe to stand on.
Beckwith confirmed its stability and the secret service agent instructed him to help President Bush onto the truck and then to leave the location. He agreed to the task. But as Beckwith began to crawl down off the truck, the President insisted that he stay.
Chants of “U-S-A, U-S-A!” rang throughout the crowd and Bush began what would become cemented as one of the most patriotic speeches in American history. “I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people that knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon” he said.
During the speech, Bush draped his arm around Beckwith’s shoulders as he addressed the nation. The scene of the two men atop the rubble served as a symbol of resilience and touched millions across the country.
Beckwith had a lasting impact on not only American citizens that day, but on the President himself as well. “His courage represented the defiant, resilient spirit of New Yorkers and Americans after 9/11” Bush said. The two stayed in contact following the tragedy as Beckwith would visit the Bush family in the White House. He was also gifted a first-edition print of the Time cover that featured the iconic scene as well as an American flag.
Throughout the rest of his retirement, Beckwith stayed active in the firefighting community as he traveled and raised money for the New York Firefighters Burn Center Foundation. He leaves behind four children, ten grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, and an everlasting reminder of American perseverance.
Seneca Farhy is a freelance journalist and a student at Fordham University.