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Bob Beckwith, the firefighter in the famous image with Bush after 9/11, dies at 91

Then-President George W. Bush is shown with New York City firefighter Bob Beckwith on a burnt fire truck in front of the World Trade Center during a tour of the devastation, Sept. 13, 2001.
Doug Mills
/
AP
Then-President George W. Bush is shown with New York City firefighter Bob Beckwith on a burnt fire truck in front of the World Trade Center during a tour of the devastation, Sept. 13, 2001.

NEW YORK — Bob Beckwith, a retired firefighter whose chance encounter with the president amid the rubble of ground zero became part of an iconic image of American unity after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, has died. He was 91.

Beckwith died Sunday night in hospice care after dealing with cancer in recent years, his wife, Barbara Beckwith, said Monday.

Wearing his old firefighter helmet from Ladder Company 164 in Queens, the Long Island resident stood with President George W. Bush as he delivered a rousing speech to weary responders three days after hijackers crashed airplanes into the twin towers of the old World Trade Center, killing 2,753 people.

"He was just lucky. He was at the right place, at the right time, and that's why he's famous," Barbara Beckwith said Monday by phone from the couple's home in Baldwin, a suburb about 30 miles from Manhattan. "But he was a regular guy. Well-liked and quiet. Just a regular Joe."

Beckwith was 69 years old and retired for seven years following a 30-year career when he rushed to help with search-and-rescue efforts as scores of other current and former first responders did in the hours and days after the attacks.

Beckwith said he was simply looking for a good vantage point to see the president as he surveyed the destruction. But Bush made an unexpected detour and hopped aboard the crushed Engine Co. 76 truck where he was standing, Beckwith recalled to the AP on the 10th anniversary of the attacks in 2011.

Barbara Beckwith said her husband helped the president get up on the fire truck and was about to let himself down when Bush intervened, assuring his spot in history.

"The president said to him, 'Where are you going?'" she recounted. "'You're going to be right here with me.'"

Bush addressed firefighters, police officers and others through a bullhorn, his arm draped around Beckwith at one point.

"I can hear you, the rest of the world hears you, and the people who knocked down these buildings will hear all of us soon," the president said as the crowd chanted, "USA! USA!"

The moment, which was captured in video and photos by The Associated Press and other news outlets, became an enduring image of resilience following the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil. It even landed Beckwith on the cover of Time magazine, a keepsake he proudly displayed at his home for years.

Beckwith's wake will be Friday, and he will be buried Saturday on Long Island, where he raised a family that includes six children, 10 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Bush, who remained in contact with the family over the years and even checked in as Beckwith's health worsened, was among those who called Monday morning to send condolences, his wife said.

In a statement, the former president said Beckwith's "courage represented the defiant, resilient spirit of New Yorkers and Americans" following the attacks.

"When the terrorists attacked, Bob suited back up and, like so many brave first responders, raced toward the danger to save and search for others," Bush wrote Monday. "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."

New York City Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh called the famous image "both inspiring and heartbreaking" and said efforts by Beckwith and other former first responders was a "testament to their devotion" to the department.

"Bob is one of the heroes of 9/11 who stood tall for America, New York City and all New Yorkers," the Uniformed Firefighters Association, a union representing NYC firefighters, wrote on X, formerly Twitter, on Monday. "He spent many hours searching for the members we lost on that fateful day in 2001."

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The Associated Press