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US President George W. Bush (L), standing next to retired firefighter Bob Beckwith, 69, speaks to volunteers and firemen as he surveys the damage at the site of the World Trade Center 14 September 2001 in New York.  AFP PHOTO/Paul RICHARDS (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP via Getty Images)
(Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images Archives)
US President George W. Bush (L), standing next to retired firefighter Bob Beckwith, 69, speaks to volunteers and firemen as he surveys the damage at the site of the World Trade Center 14 September 2001 in New York. AFP PHOTO/Paul RICHARDS (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP via Getty Images)
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By Philip Marcelo | Associated Press

NEW YORK — Bob Beckwith, a retired firefighter who by chance became part of an iconic image of American unity after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, has died. He was 91.

Beckwith died Sunday night in hospice care after dealing with cancer in recent years, his wife, Barbara Beckwith, said Monday.

Wearing a firefighter helmet and a respirator hanging around his neck, the Long Island resident stood atop of a smashed fire truck at the World Trade Center as President George W. Bush famously delivered a rousing speech to weary responders after hijackers crashed airplanes into the twin towers of the old World Trade Center, killing 2,753 people.

“I can hear you, the rest of the world hears you, and the people who knocked down these buildings will hear all of us soon,” Bush said through a bullhorn, his arm draped around Beckwith on Sept. 14 as firefighters, police officers and others chanted “USA! USA!”

The moment, which was captured in video and photos by The Associated Press and other news outlets, became an enduring image of resilience following the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil. It even landed Beckwith on the cover of Time magazine, a keepsake he proudly displayed at his home for years.

“He was just lucky. He was at the right place, at the right time, and that’s why he’s famous,” Barbara Beckwith said Monday by phone from the couple’s home in Baldwin, a suburb about 30 miles from Manhattan. “But he was a regular guy, you know? Well-liked and quiet. Just a regular Joe.”

Beckwith’s wake will be Friday, and he will be buried Saturday on Long Island, where he raised a family that includes six children, 10 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Bush, who remained in contact with the family over the years and even checked in as Beckwith’s health worsened, was among those who called Monday morning to send condolences, his wife said.

FILE Bob Beckwith, the retired New York City firefighter who was photographed on a pile of rubble with President George W. Bush at the World Trade Center site after the Sept. 11th attacks, poses with the helmet he wore in the original photograph, at his home in Baldwin, N.Y., Aug. 30, 2006. Beckwith, who became part of an iconic image of American unity after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, has died at age 91. Beckwith died Sunday night, Feb. 4, 2024, in hospice care after dealing with cancer in recent years, his wife, Barbara Beckwith, said Monday. (AP Photo/Jeff Zelevansky, File)
Beckwith, seen here in 2006, was one of scores of former first responders who rushed to ground zero to help with search-and-rescue efforts in the days and weeks after 9/11.​

In a statement, the former president said Beckwith’s “courage represented the defiant, resilient spirit of New Yorkers and Americans” following 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 wrote Monday. “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.”

New York City Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh called the famous image “both inspiring and heartbreaking” and said efforts by Beckwith and other former first responders was a “testament to their devotion” to the department.

“Bob is one of the heroes of 9/11 who stood tall for America, New York City and all New Yorkers, he spent many hours searching for the members we lost on that fateful day in 2001,” the Uniformed Firefighters Association, a union representing NYC firefighters, wrote on X, formerly Twitter, on Monday.

Beckwith was 69 years old and retired for seven years following a 30-year career based at fire stations in his hometown of Queens when the attacks happened. Like scores of other current and former first responders, he rushed to ground zero to help with search-and-rescue efforts in the days and weeks after.

On the day that made him famous, Beckwith said he was simply looking for a good vantage point to see the president. But Bush made an unexpected detour and hopped aboard the crushed Engine Co. 76 truck where he was standing, Beckwith recalled to the AP on the 10th anniversary of the attacks in 2011.

Barbara Beckwith said her husband helped the president get up on the truck and was about to let himself down when Bush intervened, assuring his spot in history.

“The president said to him, ‘Where are you going?’,” she recounted. “You’re going to be right here with me.”

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