The Firefighter Seen 'round the World
Bob Beckwith embraces role as a symbol of NYFD
By Joseph Kellard
Three days after terrorists destroyed the Twin Towers, Bob Beckwith drove to Manhattan as a retired New York City firefighter who spent time fishing and traveling. Several hours later he left the city as an exhausted retired firefighter who, unbeknownst to him, had already receive worldwide recognition and who would spend more time championing a good cause. Yet, as he headed back to his home near the Oceanside-Baldwin border, he thought how nobody would believe what had happened to him that day.
Beckwith is the firefighter who stood beside President Bush when he first visited ground zero and spoke through a bullhorn to a crowd of rescue workers. Just like the three firefighters photographed raising the American flag at that site, Beckwith, too, was unknowingly catapulted into being a recognizable symbol.
However, this new life that befell him would have never happened had he not overcome the shock and despondence he felt from the horrific events he watched unfold on his TV three days before.
"When the buildings went down, I couldn't believe what I saw," Beckwith said, fighting through an emotional lump that formed in his throat. "It took the wind right out of me because I knew we had guys in there doing their jobs and we lost a lot of them. And it took me two days to focus in my head what had actually happened."
That Friday, Sept. 14, Beckwith decided he needed to participate in the rescue efforts at ground zero, despite his elder status and retirement from the FDNY over seven years ago.
"I told my wife and two of my children that I was going down there, that I had to help out. I knew a couple of men who were buried under the rubble. They tried to stop me, telling me I was nuts to go down; that I was too old. I went down anyway. I felt the need to go down and help out," said the 69-year-old Beckwith.
Saving lives and property were his reasons for becoming a firefighting, which he described as the greatest job in the world. For 23 of his 30 years with the department, Beckwith was a first-grade firefighter with Ladder Co. No 117 in Astoria, and for his final seven years with Ladder Co. No. 164 in Dougleston. While those companies suffered no casualties on Sept. 11, the sons of firefighters he had worked with were lost in the rubble.
Wearing his 164 fire helmet and showing his ID card, Beckwith was permitted over the Williamsburg Bridge and past the National Guard near Canal Street. Once he'd walked down to ground zero he got right in the mix of things, first helping to remove rubble by going to the head of a bucket brigade. Throughout the day, he performed various tasks, including digging with a shovel. After he took a break for food and resumed shoveling, word was out that President Bush was making a trip to the site of the disaster.
Before his arrival, a crane operator lifted a pumper fire engine from the rubble and rested it on the street. When Bush arrived, Beckwith and others laid down their tools, and he jumped up on the pumper to look for the commander in chief. He just saw people crowded around microphones set up near the command post.
Suddenly, a cleanly-dressed man appeared before Beckwith, whose boots, blue jeans and sweatshirt were ashen, and he asked the veteran firefighter to jump up and down on the pumper to test its safety. He was Senior Advisor to the President Karl Rove, who told him to stay there to help "someone" up onto it but to get down afterward.
"I thought it was going to be some other politician," Beckwith said. "So, I'm waiting and waiting, and who comes around the side of the rig but the president. I said to myself, 'Oh, my god.' I helped pull him up onto the pumper. I said, 'Are you OK, Mr. President?' He said, 'Yeah, I'm good, thanks.' And then I started to get down and he said, 'Where are you going?' I said, 'I was told to get off.' He put his arm around me and said, 'No, stay right with me.' All of a sudden he was handed a bullhorn and he started to talk."
As Bush spoke, some of the iron workers, police officers and firefighters started to yell, "We can't hear you," Beckwith explained. That's when Bush famously blared, "I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear from all of us soon."
It was Bush's first informal, off-the-cuff comments about the terrorist attacks and his expected military action, which were blared through the bullhorn and heard around the world through cable channels such as CNN and Fox News.
"It was such an honor to be there next to him at that moment," said Beckwith, sitting in his Baldwin home where he's lived for 44 years, as tears welled up in his eyes. "He really gave the workers some boost, and they started chanting 'USA! USA!' And when he finished speaking, everyone went right back to work."
Before Beckwith resumed digging, a few reporters asked him an array of questions: Who are you? Are you retired? However, he'd never seen any TV cameras.
Later, he was tapped on the shoulder. It was a secret service agent. He handed him the American stick-flag Bush had waved while standing on the pumper with Beckwith, a scene captured on the Sept. 24, 2001 cover of Time magazine.
"The President was looking for you. He wanted you to have this flag," the agent told him.
Exhausted and with no safe place to put the flag, Beckwith called it a day. He walked back to his car parked near 55 Engine Co. on Broom Street, where a memorial of candles, flowers and photos of missing loved ones were set up outside. Beckwith went inside to pay his condolences and then he drove home.
"When I pulled into my driveway, all my neighbors came out. Some of them were carrying candles. I said, 'How did you know I was down there?' They said they saw me on TV. I just thought, 'Wow, that's something.'"
Desiring to return to ground zero, Beckwith was contacted by the Retired Men's Association, who told him he was too old for that kind of work and that instead he should help out by going to funerals. Beckwith agreed with them. He donned his firefighter's uniform and began attended the many memorials and funerals held throughout Nassau County.
His wide-spread recognition led him to being invited to different events. Twice he visited Germany to talk on government and private TV shows. He visited the Dublin Fire Department in Ireland, and the Chamber of Commerce in Ridgeland, Mississippi. In coming months, he is scheduled to attend functions in Chicago and Manheim, Pennsylvania. The funds raised at all these events will go to his pet charity, the New York Firefighters Burn Center Foundation, which finances burn research and anyone who suffered from burns, including 24 survivors of the Twin Tower attacks.
"As long as they need me, I will continue to anything I can do to raise money for the foundation. You can't image the pain these burn victims go through," he said, shaking his head slowly.
Last week, Beckwith was invited to the White House when Governor Pataki dedicated to the president the bullhorn he used that day at ground zero. He attended the occasion with his wife, Barbara, his daughter, Christine Clancy, his son-in-law Peter Clancy, and two of his nine grandchildren, Joseph and Megan Clancy, both students of Oceanside schools.
"When I met the president again, he embraced me, and he joked with the media, saying how I had made him famous," Beckwith said, laughing.
While Christine described her father as a reserved man who shies from the spotlight, his newfound recognition is a light he willingly bathes in.
"When you're in the right place at the right time, anything can happen. And that's exactly my story. And now I've become the symbol of the New York City firefighters. My life has really changed, but to be in the position to do something is fantastic."
* This story originally appeared in the Oceanside/Island Park Herald in 2002.