Bob Beckwith, a retired firefighter from Long Island who aided in the search for survivors after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and who was catapulted to fame after photographs showing him and President George W. Bush standing atop the rubble-strewn remains of a fire truck became symbols of the stunned nation’s grit, died on Sunday in Rockville Centre, N.Y. He was 91.
He died in hospice care after being treated for cancer, his grandson Matthew said.
After the attacks, Mr. Beckwith had put on his old leather helmet and uniform and joined a brigade to clear debris at ground zero. When Mr. Bush visited the site on Sept. 14, Mr. Beckwith climbed atop the destroyed fire truck to get a better view of the command center where the president was supposed to speak.
Then, he was asked by Karl Rove, the deputy White House chief of staff, and Secret Service agents to climb atop the truck and jump on it to test its stability. He did, and was then asked to come down. But instead of going to the command center, the president climbed aboard the wreck and invited Mr. Beckwith to share the spot, and the historic moment, with him while he addressed emergency service workers.
Mr. Beckwith handed the president a bullhorn, but some of the workers complained that they couldn’t hear.
“I can hear you, the rest of the world hears you,” Mr. Bush shouted to the crowd in a rousing address beamed on live TV, “and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”
The crowd responded by chanting “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”
By the time Mr. Beckwith returned home to Baldwin, N.Y., later that day, he was a neighborhood hero. After a photograph of the moment appeared on the front page of The Daily News the next morning and another one of the same scene made the cover of Time magazine two weeks later, he had been transformed from a firefighter living a quiet retired life into a stoic paradigm of New York City’s resilience and America’s fortitude.
Mr. Beckwith spent only one day volunteering at the site — he had defied his family by going in the first place — and afterward friends warned him that a man nearing 70 was in no condition to endure the backbreaking work that would continue for months.
But instead of returning to retirement, he became something of a celebrity and a spokesman for numerous charities, the New York Firefighters Burn Center Foundation in particular.
Mr. Beckwith had a first-edition print of the Time cover photograph and an American flag given to him by the president and kept them in a display box at home. He donated his old leather helmet — which he had worn to get past police and National Guard roadblocks on his way to ground zero — to the 9/11 Memorial & Museum at the former Trade Center site. He also remained in touch with the Bush family, whom he visited at the White House.
At the White House on Feb. 25, 2002, Mr. Beckwith and Gov. George E. Pataki of New York presented the president with the bullhorn he had used to address the emergency workers.
“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,” Mr. Bush said in a statement released on Monday from Dallas. “His courage represented the defiant, resilient spirit of New Yorkers and Americans after 9/11.”
Robert Beckwith was born on April 16, 1932, in the Astoria section of Queens to Thomas and Cecilia (McHugh) Beckwith. His father was an electrician, his mother a telephone operator.
After graduating from Rice High School in Harlem and serving in the Navy in the 1950s, he was assigned to Ladder Company 117 in Astoria for his first 23 years as a firefighter and with Ladder Company 164 in Douglaston, Queens, for the remaining seven. Neither company suffered casualties in the terrorist attack, but the sons of some of his friends were reported missing or dead.
On the morning of the attack, a grandson of Mr. Beckwith’s had been hit by a car while riding his bicycle to school. Mr. Beckwith was watching television at the hospital when the towers collapsed.
In addition to his wife, Barbara (Armband) Beckwith, he is survived by four children, Richard, Stephen and Bob Beckwith and Christine Clancy; 10 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Two other sons, Joseph and Tom, died.