Sept. 11, 2001, displayed humanity at its worst but also many Americans at their best — like the “man in the red bandana.”
His face covered, the man in the red bandana saved at least 18 people by showing them a way out of the South Tower of the World Trade Center. In the 2017 documentary “Man in the Red Bandana,” survivor Ling Young recalls hearing a young man say he found stairs to escape the tower and followed him along with several others.
After that man led Young and others out of the South Tower, he ran back up the stairs. The towers collapsed and his body was found with the firefighters. Everyone was left to wonder — who was he?
The man in the red bandana was 24-year-old Welles Crowther. Former President Barack Obama spoke of him at the National September 11th Memorial & Museum dedication in 2014.
“Welles was just 24 years old, with a broad smile and a bright future. He worked in the South Tower on the 104th floor,” Obama said. “He had a big laugh, a joy of life and dreams of seeing the world.”
His mother, Alison Crowther, was on the stage. Crowther travels the country speaking to adults and kids about choosing to be a hero. Her husband started the Welles Crowther Trust, which gives out scholarships, and also the Red Bandana Project, which provides curriculum and training on leadership.
As the 20th anniversary approaches, Alison Crowther says she’s developed the strength to help her face the loss of her son.
“It's not just the anniversary, it's every day,” she says. “But you just kind of focus on the good that you can try to make come into the world.”
Her husband, Jeff Crowther, died of cancer two years ago. At the readings of the victims’ names at the World Trade Center, Jeff Crowther would blow a kiss to the sky as he read his son’s name.
Realizing their son died as a hero helped the couple cope with the loss, Alison Crowther says.
When the mother read an article in The New York Times that mentioned the man in the red bandana, she knew she’d found her son.
“One of my greatest torments was that he would have been trapped and suffering like so many people were, and that would have been like the ultimate torture for Welles,” she says. “So when we found out that he was actually free to make his final decisions about how he was going to behave at the attacks, that was a huge relief.”
Jeff Crowther was a member of Upper Nyack's Empire Hook and Ladder Company No. 1. The father used to clean fire trucks with his 7-year-old son, and by age 16, Welles Crowther was a junior member. Welles Crowther eventually had full firefighter status.
Taking on the role of a protector in his family, Welles Crowther looked after his two younger sisters and mother, Alison Crowther says.
“Welles was full of adventure, always was kind of leaping from the highest places,” she says. “But he was also kind of like a guardian angel.”
At age 5, Welles Crowther followed his 3-year-old sister after she ran into the street and pulled her back to safety, his mother recalls.
The Origins Of The Famous Red Bandana
The family used to dress up for church, she says, and one week, a young Welles Crowther asked his father for a handkerchief to put in the breast pocket of his jacket.
Jeff Crowther then handed his son a handkerchief to put in the jacket “for show” and a red bandana to keep in a back pocket “for blows,” Alison Crowther says. Her son kept the red bandana in his back pocket for years to come as a way to connect to his father.
At the time of the attacks, Welles Crowther worked as an equities trader for investment bank Sandler O'Neill in the South Tower. He kept the bandana folded on his desk. One day, a woman who worked in the office approached him and asked about the bandana.
“Welles picked up the red bandana, turned around and held it up and said, ‘With this red bandana, I'm going to change the world,’ ” Alison Crowther says.
Welles Crowther went to Boston College before taking the job at Sandler O'Neill. But the last weekend he saw his parents, his mother says she recalls her son saying he’s “meant to be part of something really, really big.”
Her son sensed something coming — and Alison Crowther had a premonition starting the night before Sept. 11 that she was going to die that day. Other victims’ families have also reported sensing doom on the horizon before the attacks.
The premonition gave her strength and reassurance of God’s presence, she says.
“That’s why I just keep on going out and speaking with people and speaking to children,” she says, “and teaching them that they don't have to do what Welles did … but there are so many ways to bring good into the world and care for other people.”
Paperwork found afterward indicated that Welles Crowther was applying to be a fireman despite having a big deal job in New York. The summer prior to the attacks, he’d spoken to his father about how he couldn’t stand to sit in front of a computer for the rest of his life, his mother says.
Remembering A Son, A Brother, A Hero
After American Airlines Flight 11 flew into the North Tower on Sept. 11, Welles Crowther left his mother a voicemail where he said, “Mom, this is Welles. I want you to know I'm OK.”
He ultimately wasn’t OK — a painful reality for his mother.
“What's hard right now is this 20th anniversary. It really marks the passage of so much time since we've been together with Welles,” she says. “And that's so hard.”
Welles Crowther would have been 44 today, perhaps with a family of his own — something he used to talk about with his sister Honor Crowther Fagan.
After his death, Honor Crowther Fagan mourned the loss of their shared dream of raising their children together. For his two sisters, losing their brother was “catastrophic,” their mother says.
At the memorial dedication back in 2014, survivor Young expressed gratitude for the bravery and selflessness of the man in the red bandana.
“Without him, I wouldn't be here,” Young said. “He saved my life and he'll always be with my heart and always be with me. Unfortunately, Alison had to lose him to save me.”
His mother sees her loss in the same light.
“Of course it's horrible that we lost him, but it's no surprise to us what he did,” Alison Crowther says. “He was doing what he was meant to do that day as a first responder. He was there to save lives.”
Boston College's Volunteer and Service Learning Center organizes and hosts the Red Bandanna 5k Run every fall in honor of Welles Crowther. The Red Bandanna 5k Run will be kicked off on campus on Saturday, Oct. 23 and it will continue virtually through Nov. 4. For information and to register, click here.
This segment aired on September 9, 2021.