When Welles Crowther was a boy, his father stuck a folded, white handkerchief in Welles’ top coat pocket and said, “This one is for show.” Welles’ dad then gave him a red bandana for his hip pocket and instructed, “This one is for blow!” Welles kept a red bandana with him for the rest of his life.
He wore it as a junior firefighter; under his ball cap and hockey helmet through high school; and later when he played lacrosse at Boston College. When he got a job as an equities trader, he stuck it in his back pocket and took it to Wall Street. He took it with him to work on the morning of September 11, 2001 to his desk on the 104th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center.
The South Tower was the second building struck that morning, the jetliner slicing through the 78th to 85th floors. Welles, now 24 years old but as up-to-date on his fire and rescue training as ever, took that red bandana out of his pocket and wrapped it around his face to ward off the smoke. Triaging the wounded he called out, “If you can stand, stand now. If you can help others, do so. And follow me.”
Carrying a woman on his back and leading a half-dozen other survivors, Welles led them down to the 40th floor where they were met by rescuers. They all escaped the inferno, but Welles Crowther turned around, saying, “I’m going back to help.” Wearing that red bandana, he disappeared into the smoke, time and time again, bringing survivors to the 40th floor for evacuation, until the building collapsed.
For months, survivors spoke reverently about the mysterious young man in the red bandana who saved them, but none knew his name. Welles’ parents came forward and filled in those blanks, learning only later about the heroic role their son had played. Singularly, he saved some twenty people that otherwise dreadful morning.
When his family and friends were asked why Welles acted the way he did, they responded that, “It was just in him to do so,” to be of service. Even on the morning of the attack, he was preparing to leave his corporate job to join the New York Fire Department. He believed that people mattered; that life mattered; that helping others counted for something.
It was six months before Welles’ body was recovered from the rubble of the collapsed towers. Surrounded by the fallen firefighters he had been assisting, no DNA test was required to ascertain his identity. He still wore that red bandana like a sacred halo around his head.
Forget the stories of the conspirators and the attackers; don’t even mention their names. Remember stories like these, remember people like Welles Crowther, who became the epitome of sacrifice and compassion, “laying down his life” for others. Do more than remember. Heed his last words: “If you can help others, do so. And follow me.”