I’ll never forget Bob Beckwith


Long Island lost an American icon with the passing of Baldwin resident Bob Beckwith last week. The image of Beckwith standing with President George W. Bush amid the ruins of the World Trade Center days after the Sept. 11 attacks will forever personify America’s unyielding courage and quiet determination in the face of horrific tragedy and massive challenge.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the deadliest attack ever on American soil, the country was shattered. I traveled to New York from Washington on Friday, Sept. 14. Bush was on Air Force One, and I was on an accompanying Air Force jet with other members of Congress from New York.

Riding in a government vehicle from LaGuardia Airport to Lower Manhattan, I was struck by how quickly New York had become a ghost town. There was virtually no traffic on its usually congested streets, and just handfuls of pedestrians on otherwise busy sidewalks. We were driven to a corner adjacent to the wreckage of the twin towers. Though I had worked in an office building on Vesey Street years before, when the towers were being constructed, I had difficulty getting my bearings amid all the destruction.

We were told that the president was several blocks away, and would be making his way toward us, when we heard a loud roar and cheers of “USA!” This was before the age of social media, so it wasn’t until I got home that I saw the video on television of Bush standing atop a damaged vehicle, shouting into a bullhorn that “the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!’’ His left arm was wrapped around the shoulder of a strong-faced, quietly confident, veteran New York City firefighter.

This image resonated with me like the iconic photo of the Marines raising the Stars and Stripes at Iwo Jima inspired a previous generation of Americans. At that moment, on Sept. 14, 2001, Americans knew we would not be vanquished. We would fight back with American spirit, determination and courage. Overnight, photos of the scene flew around the world, including to the cover of Time magazine.

In the subsequent days I would talk with firefighter friends who had worked with Bob Beckwith over the years. Everything they said about him was positive. The most common descriptions of him included “solid,” “regular guy,” “loyal” and “very patriotic.”

Sure enough, when I got to know Bob and his wife, Barbara, I saw that he was all that and more. He gave no indication that his image had been seen by tens of millions of people around the world, or that he had visited Bush in the White House and maintained a friendship with him. He was a thoroughly decent man who was proud to have been a firefighter, and considered himself no more important than other firefighters.

Often I would be invited to join retired firefighters at monthly breakfasts at a Lindenhurst diner. I was always struck by how Beckwith, an internationally known symbol of 9/11, mingled and sat so unassumingly as just one of the guys, expecting no recognition or special acknowledgment. Rosemary and I became friendly with Bob and Barbara. We visited their home and invited them to ours for Christmas parties. Bob campaigned for me, handing out flyers at shopping centers, appearing at fundraising events and attending swearing-in ceremonies in Washington.

In November, Rosemary and I visited him when we heard his health had taken a turn for the worse. It was a heartwarming visit. Bob was as sharp as ever, talking with us about his friendship with Bush and how he used his fame to focus public attention on the need to help burned and injured firefighters. He also reminisced about his 30 years of service in the FDNY, without ever making himself the center of the story.

Though he was using a walker that day, he got around easily, using it more as a safeguard than a necessity. As always, Barbara not only joined in the conversation, but had coffee and pastries for us as we sat around the dining room table. Bob wasn’t kidding himself. He knew his cancer had spread, and he would be undergoing immunotherapy. But he was both hopeful and fatalistic, hoping it would work while knowing it might not.

Bob Beckwith fought hard to the end and died as he lived, with courage and class. It was my privilege to be able to call him my friend. Bob Beckwith and 9/11. The right man for a historic moment. R.I.P.

Peter King is a former congressman, and a former chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security. Comments? pking@