Bob Beckwith, the former New York City firefighter who stood alongside George W. Bush in the rubble of Ground Zero, unexpectedly becoming part of a tableau of American fortitude in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, died on Sunday night. He was 91.
Beckwith’s death was first announced by former U.S. Rep. Pete King, who called him a man of “class and dignity” who personified the best of the city and the country in its darkest hour. It was later confirmed by the union representing New York’s firefighters.
“Bob is one of the heroes of 9/11 who stood tall for America, New York City and all New Yorkers,” FDNY UFA said in a social media statement. “He spent many hours searching for the members we lost on that fateful day in 2001.”
His wife, Barbara Beckwith, told the Associated Press on Monday that Beckwith had died in hospice care after a battle with cancer. Further details were not immediately reported, but Beckwith said in an interview last year that he was struggling with malignant melanoma and breathing issues.
“I’m old,” he told Christian outlet The Daily Citizen. “At least I got to be old. But I’m a mess. Have that 9/11 cancer.”
Bob Beckwith has passed away. A man of class and dignity. An American icon who personified the best of the FDNY, New York and America at our most perilous moment. Bob Beckwith R.I.P. pic.twitter.com/cGOZRKgnWZ
— Pete King (@RepPeteKing) February 5, 2024
In a phone interview with the AP, Barbara said, “He was just lucky. He was at the right place, at the right time, and that’s why he’s famous. But he was a regular guy, you know? Well-liked and quiet. Just a regular Joe.”
Beckwith was 69 years old and seven years retired when the World Trade Center was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. He told The Daily Citizen that he’d been driving to the hospital—his grandson had been hit by a car that morning—when the first tower was hit. He walked in to find everyone there glued to the television, he recalled.
“I looked up and saw the second tower come down,” Beckwith said. “It felt like I was stuck in a bad dream. I told my wife: ‘I’m going down there.’” His family tried to dissuade him, but his conviction only solidified when he learned that one of his friend’s sons, a fellow firefighter, was among the missing.
“I said: ‘I gotta go find this kid,’” Beckwith remembered.
It is with deep sorrow the UFA announces the passing of FF Bob Beckwith of L164. Bob is one of the heroes of 9/11 who stood tall for America, New York City and all New Yorkers, he spent many hours searching for the members we lost on that fateful day in 2001. pic.twitter.com/hK3xDB61u3
— FDNY UFA (@UFANYC) February 5, 2024
Over the next few days, Beckwith joined his former colleagues in digging among the charred remains of the towers, hoping to come across survivors in an air pocket. On Sept. 14, he heard that Bush was going to speak at the site. He climbed onto the burned remains of the Engine Co. 76 fire truck in the hopes of getting a good view.
A man who turned out to be Karl Rove, Bush’s deputy chief of staff, approached him. Speaking with CNN in 2005, Beckwith said that Rove told him “someone important” would be coming to the truck, and requested he help that person up to his vantage point before climbing down himself. “I figured, there goes my nice spot,” Beckwith told NBC in 2021.
Instead, that V.I.P. turned out to be the president. After helping him up, Beckwith started clambering off the engine. Bush stopped him. “He says, ‘Where are you going?’” Beckwith told CNN. “I said, ‘Uh, I was told to get down.’ He said, ‘No, no, you stay right here.’”
Using a bullhorn, Bush spoke to the crowd of exhausted first responders, arm thrown around Beckwith’s shoulders as chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” broke out. Someone yelled out that they couldn’t hear the president.
“I can hear you,” Bush replied. “The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”
The moment was immortalized by photographers on the scene, with images of Bush giving his speech next to a stoic Beckwith serving as a balm to Americans shattered by the ferocity of the attacks, which killed 2,996 people.
STATEMENT BY PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH ON
DALLAS, TEXAS - Laura and I are saddened by the passing of Bob Beckwith. On September 11, 2001, Bob was happily retired after more than 30 years of service with the New York City Fire Department. When the terrorists… pic.twitter.com/MeUqEp8cd8
— George W. Bush Presidential Center (@TheBushCenter) February 5, 2024
In a statement on Monday, former President Bush called Beckwith a “decent, humble man” who hadn’t hesitated to jump back into action after the attacks. “Bob suited back up and, like so many brave first responders, raced toward the danger to save and search for others,” he said.
Bush and Beckwith remained in touch in subsequent years. Barbara told the AP on Monday that the former president had called to pass on his condolences.
“His courage represented the defiant, resilient spirit of New Yorkers and Americans after 9/11,” Bush said. “I was proud to have Bob by my side at Ground Zero days later and privileged to stay in touch with this patriot over the years.”
Beckwith’s wake will be held on Friday, with a burial on Long Island held the following day, according to the AP. In addition to Barbara, he is survived by six children, 10 grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.