It’s an image we’ll never forget – President George W. Bush, bullhorn in hand, standing atop a burned-out firetruck, his arm around the shoulder of New York City firefighter Bob Beckwith.
It was September 14, 2001 – three days following the tragic events of 9/11 that rocked America and the world.
Just off to the left of the two men, working in the rubble and searching for survivors in a bucket brigade, stood a group of firefighters.
“We can’t hear you!” they yelled towards President Bush.
“I can hear you!” the president replied though the bullhorn. “The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!”
A cheer went up in the crowd, followed by chants of “USA! USA! USA!”
Bob Beckwith is now 91-years-old, still married to his wife, Barbara, and still living as for the last 66 years in his hometown of Baldwin, Long Island, where he and his bride raised their six children.
I spoke with Bob this morning, just one day after the anniversary of that memorable but emotional day. I grew up in Baldwin, only a few blocks from Bob – and we talked about some of the same people and places that shaped us.
“I’m old,” he said with a chuckle. “At least I got to be old. But I’m a mess. Have that 9/11 cancer.”
Bob Beckwith is suffering from malignant melanoma on his face and ears, and also struggles to catch his breath from time to time.
A member of St. Christopher’s Catholic Church, Bob’s memories go back to the late 1950s and 60s, when the small “chapel” was razed to make way for the larger church that still stands there today.
“Father Gorman was the pastor,” he recalled. “Then Monsignor Lawlor.”
These pastors and faith community clearly made an impact, and undoubtedly motivated him to find his way into Manhattan on that fateful day. Already retired, Beckwith didn’t have to go – and had plenty of reasons not to.
September 11, 2023, was painful for Bob on numerous levels. His grandson was hit by a car that morning.
“I drove to the hospital, walked in and everybody was watching television,” he remembered. “I looked up and saw the second tower come down. It felt like I was stuck in a bad dream. I told my wife: ‘I’m going down there.’ I was 69. I’d been retired seven years. My kids said, ‘Leave it to the young guys’, but I heard on the radio that Michael Boyle, son of my friend Jimmy, was missing. I said: ‘I gotta go find this kid.’”
Bob Beckwith never did find him – or anyone.
“Each day I say a little prayer because of the kids that didn’t make it,” he said.
What was it like to stand beside President Bush in the middle of such a poignant moment?
“Remember,” he told me. “At the time, the attacks were just a terrible thing to happen to the United States. We were focused on what we could do to help.”
All these years later, President Bush has remained in touch with Bob. “He calls me,” he said today, very nonchalantly. “He’s a good guy.”
But in a recent interview with NBC News, Bob was quick to shift the focus away from himself.
“It’s not about me,” Beckwith said. “It’s about the president and the country, and it was a terrible tragedy. I’m not gonna pat myself on the back, I didn’t do anything. When the president was there, I just happened to be in the right spot at the right time.”
Photo Credit: ABC News
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