President George W. Bush stands with firefighter Bob Beckwith on...

President George W. Bush stands with firefighter Bob Beckwith on a burnt fire truck in front of the World Trade Center during a tour of the devastation, Sept. 14, 2001. Credit: Newsday / Daniel Goodrich

Robert “Bob” Beckwith, a firefighter from Baldwin who became a symbol of America's resilience in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks as he stood shoulder to shoulder with former President George W. Bush on the rubble of Ground Zero, died on Sunday at the age of 91.

Family members said Beckwith succumbed to cancer, believed to be connected to his time working on the rescue and recovery efforts, that spread to his lungs and brain.

Beckwith became an unwitting symbol of the nation's bravery and fortitude as he stood with Bush on top of the smoldering wreckage of the World Trade Center.

The iconic image of Bush, megaphone in hand, his arm around the retired firefighter, dressed in his old gear and leather fire helmet, graced the cover of Time — a blown up image of the magazine still adorns his den — and thrust Beckwith into international fame.

“He was very modest. Never wanted any favors,” Matthew Beckwith, 25, of Point Lookout, said of his grandfather. “But he understood that he served as a symbol, not just for New Yorkers but for the country and first responders everywhere.”

In a statement Monday, Bush, who phoned Beckwith's widow, Barbara, on Monday to offer condolences, called the retired firefighter a “decent, humble man” who raced into service after 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 said. “His courage represented the defiant, resilient spirit of New Yorkers and Americans after 9/11. 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.”

FDNY Commissioner Laura Kavanagh said the image of Bush and Beckwith “captured a moment that was both inspiring and heartbreaking” while Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman called Beckwith a “great citizen” who “I was proud to call my friend.”

Beckwith joined the FDNY in 1965 and was assigned to Ladder 117 in Astoria before transferring to Ladder 164 in Douglaston where he spent the remainder of his 29-year career before retiring in 1994.

On the day of the attacks, Beckwith, then 69 and retired for seven years, heard that firefighter Michael Boyle, the son of a friend, was missing and he raced into lower Manhattan. Beckwith would spend days searching through the rubble. Boyle's remains were found in 2004.

On Sept. 14, Beckwith, standing alone atop an unearthed Engine Co. 76 fire engine in the middle of the rubble, was approached by senior Bush adviser Karl Rove who asked if the spot was safe to stand on.

Moments later, Bush reached out his arm and asked Beckwith to pull him onto the engine. As Beckwith began to step down, Bush put his arm around the Long Islander and said: “Where are you going?”

Bush then delivered a speech with a bullhorn until someone in the crowd said, “We can't hear you.” The president, standing with Beckwith, famously replied: “Well 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.” The crowd erupted in cheers of “U.S.A.”

At the time Beckwith did not know the moment had been televised and wondered who would believe he was just with the president. 

But as he returned home to Baldwin, the magnitude of the moment began to set in.

“The kid across the street said: 'Beck, you were on television!’ I said: 'Get out of here!’,” Beckwith later told The Associated Press. “But when I came in the house, it was on TV. We went to the diner, and it was on TV. And that was the first moment I knew what it meant.”

The photo with Bush was displayed in newspapers across the globe and Beckwith was inundated with media requests. He initially rejected them but eventually agreed to participate.   

Former Rep. Peter King said Beckwith never monetized his newfound celebrity, donating the money he earned from public appearances to the New York Firefighters Burn Center Foundation.

“You'll never meet a more humble, self-effacing guy,” King said of Beckwith. “He was the man for the moment. A wonderful guy and a true patriot.”

Beckwith is survived by his wife, of Baldwin, four of his six adult children, Richard, of Lido Beach, Stephen, of Wantagh, Robert, of Long Beach, and Christine Clancy, of Baldwin, sister, Bonnie Rauscher, of Florida, 10 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. His predeceased children were Joseph and Tommy.

Funeral arrangements were still pending.

With The Associated Press

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