Welles Crowther is a name most Rocklanders recognize and cherish—and now, 10 years after 9/11, a name recognized around the world.
I knew Welles' story years ago because of a special connection. My sister, Danielle, was a freshman when Welles was a senior at Boston College. She was the manager of the lacrosse team, which he played on all four years at BC. They became friendly, and he would drive her home during the holidays because our families lived in the same county.
In 1999, my brother and I visited my sister at Boston College for sibling weekend. The highlight of the trip was when we were the ballboys for a BC lacrosse game. Afterward, I had a ball autographed by Welles and several of his teammates, and my brother had a hat signed. When I got home, I bought a display case for the ball and put it on my dresser in my room. Little did I know that ball would serve a much bigger purpose years down the road.
The story about Welles cannot be told without mention of the red bandana, for which he has become synonymous with. When Welles was six years old, he admired his father—his dad, who wore a blue bandana, gave Welles a white handkerchief and a red bandana. He told him, “Welles, this one is for show (white handkerchief) and this one is for blow (red bandana).” Welles would become as attached to that bandana as it is with his memory today.
He graduated from Boston College in 1999, and shortly thereafter began working as an equities trader at Sandler, O'Neill and Partners on the 104th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center.
While receiving a job like that just one month after your college graduation would be a dream, Welles was meant for something else—and he knew it. He was a volunteer firefighter in Nyack, taking as was his father. He had spoken to his father, Jeff, shortly before 9/11 and told him that he wanted to be a New York City firefighter. The 24-year-old Crowther mentioned to him that he would go crazy if he had to sit in front of a computer all day.
On September 11, 2001 at 8:46 a.m., American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the North Tower. Welles called his mother, Alison, and left a reassuring message: “Mom... this is Welles. I... I want you to know that I'm okay.” Then at 9:02 a.m., United Flight 175 hit the South Tower, slicing the building between the 78th and 84th floors. Between 9:02 and 9:59, when the South Tower collapsed, Welles was no longer an equities trader. At a moment like that, when a savior was needed, Welles was ready for the task.
Welles made his way down from the 104th floor, and when he arrived on the 78th floor, he informed the people that were trapped: “I found the stairs. Follow me and help those you can. Everyone who can stand, stand now. If you can help others, do so.” To block the smoke and debris, Welles had tied his red bandana around his nose and mouth. He then transported those people to the 61st floor, where he handed them off to firefighters, and then returned to the 78th floor to rescue more people. In total, he made three trips, and rescued 12 people. Welles Crowther died when the South Tower collapsed at 9:59 a.m.
His mother, still searching for answers on why her son did not make it out, read an eye-opening story in the New York Times a few weeks later. A survivor, Ling Young, mentioned seeing a man in a red bandana who saved her life—Welles' mother had found him! She sent pictures of Welles to Ling to confirm that it was him and sure enough, Ling said yes. The Man in the Red Bandana sacrificed his life to save others and thankfully because of this moment, his courageous and brave act did not die with him.
I was in the seventh grade when 9/11 occurred, and I remember the day like it was yesterday. All of the teachers were acting strange and at the time, I did not know why. The televisions were turned off and when I got on the bus, the radio was turned off, as well. People talked about what it could be, but I never received a definitive answer at school. I just knew that something serious had happened earlier that day.
I got dropped off at the bus stop where my mom picked me up and she told me the startling news. As a kid, I tried to take it all in, and it was tough to process. I went to a prayer service that night at St. Catharine's to pray for all those people who had died and their families. I did not lose any relatives or family friends, but I knew people who had, and I just wanted to help them out somehow. My family and I learned of Welles' death in the weeks after 9/11, however the opportunity for me to do something did not come about until 2011.
I graduated from Catholic University in May and about a month ago, I was starting to reorganize my room at home when I looked at one of the shelves and couldn't believe what I was seeing. There on the shelf was the most important ball that I had ever received. I had never played with it and it was not scuffed up. I picked it up and there it was in blue ink: “Welles R. Crowther #19”.
Shortly after coming across the lacrosse ball, I contacted the Crowther's, and explained the situation. I met with Mr. and Mrs. Crowther yesterday to give them the ball that they deserved. The purpose of that autograph by Welles had now come full circle and it was only fitting that I return it to his parents.
Toward the end of my time with the Crowther's, Mr. Crowther showed my mother and I a frame with a red bandana and a letter from the FDNY signifying what Welles had done. As a result of Welles' valor, he was the first and only person to be posthumously made an honorary New York City firefighter.
Mrs. Crowther returned from downstairs and handed my mother and I three red bandanas. One for myself, one for my mother and one for my sister Danielle. Mrs. Crowther told my Mom and I, “Be courageous, care for others, a hero lives in you.” Whenever she hands someone a bandana in honor of Welles, she says that phrase, and that includes even President Obama. She met the president at a special showing of the 9/11 Museum for those families who lost loved ones on 9/11. After receiving his bandana, he told her, “Don't worry. We won't forget Welles.”
That is our mission: Don't forget Welles, and the hundreds of other people who sacrificed their lives trying to help out their fellow man. Don't forget the innocent people that were just going to work on that picturesque Tuesday morning. Live your life from this moment on with that quote from Mrs. Crowther in the back of your mind. If you follow that quote, I guarantee that the world will be a better place.
After meeting with the Crowther's yesterday, I received an email from Mrs. Crowther. She ended it by saying, “After you left, a sports program producer from New Zealand called us. It is now Sept. 11 where they are. We are doing that interview at 9 p.m. tonight. Now its official—Welles' story has gone round the world.”
The story of Welles' bravery, as he faced such a daunting task, has certainly gone global—and it is our job to continue to tell people his story. Most importantly, remember Mrs. Crowther's quote, and he will never be forgotten.
“Be courageous, care for others, a hero lives in you.”