Feature writing

Special feature

9/11 Ten Years On: The Survivors – Bob Beckwith

The Times

September 3, 2011


Ten years have passed since September 11, 2001, but what has happened to some of the people caught up in that momentous day? In this special feature, we meet the survivors, such as the dust-covered bank teller and the businessman whose images came to symbolise New York’s remarkable spirit.

We speak to the retired fireman who went to the site to help and ended up standing next to President Bush, and to an injured young woman and the marshal who carried her from the ruins of the twin towersBrian Clark and Stanley Praimnath recount their escape from the southern tower, two of only four survivors from above the point of impact. Howard W. Lutnick, CEO of Cantor Fitzgerald, reveals the emotional cost of losing 658 employees, including his brother, and four widows describe grieving for their husbands.

Vivid, shocking, upsetting, inspiring: their stories embody a day that remains impossible to forget. 

Bob Beckwith lives in Baldwin, Long Island, with his wife Barbara. Beckwith, 79, retired from the New York Fire Department after 29 years but on September 14, 2001, he went to Ground Zero to aid the emergency services and by chance became part of one of the most famous images. 

“My family didn’t want me to go. I was 69 and too old, they said. But on September 14, wearing my old fireman’s uniform, I drove into the city, went to a fire station in Little Italy – Engine Company 55 – and talked my way through the security cordons around the Towers. The sight that greeted me reminded me of the British Blitz. I didn’t care; I just wanted to dig and find some of those poor people. I joined a ‘bucket brigade’ of workers, carrying buckets from the debris, including paper, parking cards, pictures and, of course, body parts. As a fireman I’d come across them before, but there were 3,000 people dead here, so that’s a lot of body parts.

“We were working hard when suddenly we heard, ‘The President is on his way.’ Everyone was chanting, ‘USA, USA!’ as he walked down the street, and, ‘Hey, George, whatcha going to do about this?’ A guy who looked like a Secret Service guy said to me, ‘Is this safe?’, pointing to the pumper [fire engine] I was standing on. ‘Show me; jump up and down on it.’ The next minute the President is standing below me. I pull him up, we joke that we’re physically in a tight spot, but as I go to get down, he says, ‘Where are you going? Stay right there.’

“So there I am standing with President Bush and I’m saying to my dead mother, ‘See, Ma, I’m with the President.’ I didn’t see any photographers or TV cameras. A few minutes later, the guy I thought was Secret Service gave me an American flag. It turned out he was Karl Rove, Mr Bush’s adviser. After that, I just went back to work.

“That night, the union called and told me: ‘Don’t come back to the site. You’re too old and we don’t want to have to pick you up.’ They asked if my uniform still fitted. Yes, I told them. ‘Then go to as many funerals and memorial services for dead firefighters as you can.’ So I did: sometimes two or three a day. It was the little kids and wives you felt sorry for.

“The pictures of me from that day went around the world. But who am I to be on the cover of Time magazine? It made me uncomfortable. The phone rang with inquiries from TV stations all over the globe: Germany, Ireland, China. There were reporters outside my door. When Osama bin Laden died, they were setting up lights outside the house at 2am.

“I met President Bush four times after that day. If you didn’t know him you probably thought he was a bad guy, but I did know him and he was a good guy. After voting Democrat all my life, three years before 9/11 I became a Republican. He put his arms around me on one occasion and said, ‘Well, Bob, you made me famous.’ The 9/11 Memorial Museum at the site has everything I was wearing that day: the helmet, uniform, boots. My wife thought I should have kept them and sold them later if one of our grandchildren needed help with their college fees. But I believe we should never forget what happened that day. To me, it’s an historical event like Pearl Harbor.

“The photograph changed my life: without it I’d be sitting here, watching TV, waiting to get old and die. But instead I’ve travelled. My sister says it made me come out of my shell. Go figure: 9/11 changed my life for the better, but I wish it had never happened.”