Retired firefighter recalls famous bullhorn moment at ground zero

Friday, September 2, 2011 | 5:18 p.m. CDT; updated 7:19 p.m. CDT, Saturday, September 3, 2011
In this Sept. 14, 2001, file photo, President George W. Bush embraces firefighter Bob Beckwith while standing in front of the collapsed World Trade Center buildings in New York as rescue efforts continue. The photograph made Beckwith famous with his friends, family and neighbors.

BALDWIN, N.Y. — As he drove home to the suburbs three days after terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center, and only hours after he was photographed standing alongside President George W. Bush atop a demolished fire truck at ground zero, retired firefighter Bob Beckwith had not yet realized he'd become part of history.

Driving over the Williamsburg Bridge, he mused: "Who's going to believe I was with the president? My kids are going to say, yeah, right."

Arriving at his Baldwin, N.Y., home, on Long Island about 30 miles east of the city, he saw otherwise.

"People are coming out of their houses with candles, neighbors are coming up my driveway," he recalled. "My neighbor across the street is a city cop and he yells, 'Beck, you're on TV.'"

The 30-year veteran of the FDNY, now 79, has repeated the story of his encounter with the president dozens of times. The media came calling this year again after Navy SEALS killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.

"I would have liked it to be on George Bush's watch, but it wasn't, so OK," Beckwith said.

Of the day that made him famous, Beckwith said he was just trying to find a good spot to watch the president tour ground zero, when Bush unexpectedly made a turn on his route and hopped aboard the crushed Engine Co. 76 truck.

The ironworkers, firefighters, police officers and rescue personnel at first had difficulty hearing the president, Beckwith recalled. Then Bush was handed a bullhorn.

"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 to the cheering throng.

"That built us up," Beckwith recalled. "Then we wanted to get back to work because I still believed there was people alive who had to find air pockets. I was wrong. But I really believed we could still find somebody."

He remains somewhat bashful about his appearance with the president, though a blown-up Time magazine front cover of him and Bush adorns his den. Beckwith has donated the tens of thousands of dollars he's earned for public appearances to the New York Firefighters Burn Center Foundation.

"I was one of many guys, many retired guys down there, many, and they were doing their job down at the site," he told The Associated Press. "I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. That's it in a nutshell."

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