Saying goodbye to a true American hero


“When the terrorists attacked, Bob suited up. And, like so many brave first responders, raced toward the danger to save and search for others.”

Those were the words former President George W. Bush shared in a statement last week about Bob Beckwith, a Queens firefighter from Baldwin who had indeed raced to the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and ultimately stood with the president a few days later as he gave a rousing speech to the first responders with nothing but a bullhorn in that iconic moment.

Except that Beckwith — who died on Feb. 4, at 91 — wasn’t on active duty in 2001. He was 69, and had been retired from the New York City Fire Department since the mid-1990s, following a stellar 30-year career. But it was in his blood to rush and help, and that was the only thing on his mind as he raced to the scene in search of survivors, donning his old firefighter helmet from Ladder Co. 164.

It was by pure chance that the president spotted him that day. But once he did, Bush wanted nothing more than to have Beckwith at his side while he sought to build optimism during one of the country’s darkest periods.

“I want you to know that America today is on bended knee in prayer for the people whose lives we lost here,” Bush told the first responders that day, his left arm draped around Beckwith. “For the workers who work here. For the families who mourn. This 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.”

“We can’t hear you,” someone shouted from the crowd. Without missing a beat, the president yelled back into the bullhorn: “I can hear you!” earning cheers from those gathered around him.

“I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!”

Afterward, Bush extended his hand to Beckwith, who shook it proudly before stepping off the rubble so he could get back to work.

Beckwith wasn’t introduced that day, but that didn’t keep the world from knowing who he was. From multiple news reports in the months that followed to the cover of Time magazine, the image of Bush standing with Beckwith demonstrated the resolve of the American people, helping to begin the healing process.

Yet those days were very difficult for Beckwith. Of the 2,977 people who died that day, 343 were FDNY members who had raced into the twin towers as others desperately tried to find their way out. Another 71 were law enforcement officers — primarily from the New York City Police Department — while 55 others were military personnel, most of them killed in the attack on the Pentagon in Washington.

After it seemed the initial danger had passed, another remained hidden among the rubble, and it attacked every one of those brave men and women who sifted through the debris that day and in the weeks and months that followed. Cancers believed to have developed after exposure to the toxic debris sickened many of them in the years afterward, and claimed many lives. Last September, after the death of former EMT Hilda Vannata and retired firefighter Robert Fulco, the number of FDNY members killed in the aftermath by those diseases equaled the total who died on Sept. 11 itself.

And that number, horrifically, will only grow. The first responders and their families will continue to need our help. And it’s imperative that our leaders at both the state and federal level continue to ensure that funding is in place to make that happen.

Bob Beckwith lived to 91, capping an extraordinary life. But even his was cut short by a 9/11-related illness. Something he never would have developed if he had just stayed home that day.

But that wasn’t Bob Beckwith. And it certainly wasn’t who President Bush saw that day at ground zero. Beckwith was a man who raced toward danger while others ran from it. And retired or not, it wasn’t going to stop him.

“I was proud to have Bob by my side at ground zero days later,” Bush said after learning of Beckwith’s death. “And privileged to stay in touch with this patriot over the years.”

Rest in peace, Bob Beckwith. You truly do define what it means to be an American.