Iconic 9/11 moment at ground zero: The story behind President Bush’s photo with FDNY retiree Bob Beckwith

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BALDWIN, Long Island — Nearly 20 years after Bob Beckwith stood next to then-President George W. Bush at ground zero, the 89-year-old retired firefighter from Baldwin, Long Island, said strangers from Russia, Germany, Australia, China and other countries around the globe still send him mail asking for his autograph on photos of the pair that day.

Days after the 9/11 terror attacks, Beckwith arrived at the scene and hopped up on a demolished pumper recovered from ground zero. He was hoping for a good vantage point to see the president.

The commander in chief was arriving on Sept. 14, 200,1 to survey the damage from the jetliner-fueled terror attacks, three days before, that led to the collapse of the Twin Towers.

“This guy came over and said the president’s coming,” Beckwith recalled in his living room recently.  

Referring to the battered pumper, Beckwith said the man asked, “Is this safe? ‘I said, ‘Yeah.'”

“Do you know who this guy was?” Beckwith asked PIX11. “Karl Rove.”

Rove was a senior advisor in Bush’s inner circle, doing advance work before the president arrived.

“You help him up, and then you get down,” Beckwith said Rove instructed him.

Beckwith recalled he noticed President Bush approaching a podium “and then he does a hard right. He puts his arm up.”

After helping Bush get on top of the pumper, Beckwith remembered, “I start getting down. He said, ‘Where you going?'”

The 41st president of the United States then threw his arm around Beckwith’s shoulders and proceeded to address a crowd of first responders and construction workers who were chanting, “USA! USA!” 

Beckwith was wearing the fire helmet from his old FDNY company in Douglaston, Queens — Ladder 164.  

“I looked up, I said, ‘Look, Ma. I’m with the president,” Beckwith said referring to his late mother.

Using a bullhorn, Bush’s message to the mass of people was serious and to the point.

“America today is on bended knee, in prayer for the people whose lives were lost here, for the families who mourn. The nation stands with the good people of New York City and New Jersey and Connecticut as we mourn the loss of thousands of our citizens.”

When one rescue worker cried out, “We can’t hear you,” the president had a memorable response.

“I can hear you!” he shouted, as the crowd roared and whistled.  “I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you!” 

The president continues.

“And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon,” Bush said, as the people there burst into cheers.

Six weeks after the short speech, the United States launched its war on terror, targeting Taliban sites in Afghanistan.

Beckwith, then 69, had stood with Bush, when the president warned U.S. enemies what was coming, but Beckwith almost didn’t get to ground zero in the first place.

On the morning of Sept. 11th, 2001, Beckwith had watched the twin towers collapse on a TV screen in a Long Island hospital room, where his grandson was being treated after getting hit by a car on the way to school.

As Beckwith learned 343 firefighters were missing in the smoke and rubble, including the son of Jimmy Boyle — the president of the union, the United Firefighters Association, he felt an urgent need to help with the “bucket brigade” at ground zero in lower Manhattan.  

His family didn’t think it was a good idea.

“They said, ‘You’re 69! You’re too old,” Beckwith recalled.

By early Friday morning, Sept.14, Beckwith thought to himself, “I’m out of here,” and started driving toward lower Manhattan from Long Island.

He drove around cones that were blocking access to the Williamsburg Bridge and parked his car in downtown Manhattan by FDNY 55 Engine at Broom and Mulberry Streets, paying his respects inside.

Beckwith said a firefighter on house watch told him, “We lost four guys and a pumper.”

When Beckwith arrived at the perimeter of ground zero, the National Guard tried to stop him.

“And they said, ‘We don’t care who you are, you’re not getting in,” Beckwith recalled.

Beckwith told PIX11 his quick-thinking response.  

“I said, ‘I’m going to be in trouble, because I missed the rig this morning.'”

That’s when one National Guard member said, “Let him in.”

Beckwith remembered his first impression when he got to the disaster scene. 

“When I saw that rubble, the first thing I thought of was England … like World War II,” Beckwith recalled.  “They got hit so hard.”

When Beckwith made his way to where the South Tower had stood, he remembered someone told him, “Get out of here, we don’t need you.”

But he helped dig out a damaged fire pumper that was then placed at Vesey and West Street, and that’s the pumper President Bush stood on.

After the president made his speech, Beckwith said then-Gov. George Pataki helped the firefighter off the pumper and put him down on the street.

Beckwith said a member of the president’s entourage came over to him and said, “The president wants you to have this flag.”

It was the small flag Bush had waved from atop the fire pumper.

Beckwith remembered when he was driving home to Long Island, “I’m going over the bridge, and I’m going, ‘Who’s going to believe I was with the president?'”

He didn’t realize yet his moment on the pumper was seen around the world.

When he arrived near his house in Baldwin, he knew something was different.

“I come up the street, and I see people coming out of their houses,” Beckwith told PIX11. “They had candles.”

Pretty soon, Beckwith had landed on the cover of Time magazine with President Bush, under the words “One Nation. Indivisible.”

The Time magazine cover, along with the small presidential flag, are now framed in a shadow box in Beckwith’s home.

Several months later, Beckwith; his wife, Barbara; and some of their family were invited to the White House with Pataki.

Pataki and Beckwith presented President Bush with the bull horn he’d used at ground zero — a piece of history to be placed one day at Bush’s presidential library in Texas.

Beckwith’s helmet, meantime, is in a special artifact room at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in Manhattan.

The former president and Beckwith are still in touch.

“Every Christmas, I send him a card, he sends me a card,” Beckwith said.  “He’s a regular guy.”

As Beckwith approaches 90, he’s been getting treatment for skin cancer from the doctors who specialize in 9/11-related illnesses.

“I got three different cancers in one ear,” Beckwith said, gesturing to his right ear.  “I have malignant melanoma, I got Mohs surgeries.”

He’s still enjoying time with his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

And he wants to make sure young people learn the history of Sept. 11, 2001.

“It’s all there; it’s all written out,” Beckwith said.

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