Tuesday , September 10, 2002
NEW YORK —In high school, he was the type of kid who would selflessly feed the puck to the hockey team's lowest-scoring player, hoping to give his teammate his first goal.
To his friends, he was the guy who would always listen and lend a hand.
Rain or shine, as a child, he would find something to do with his younger sisters, whether it was practicing lacrosse moves or having pillow fights in the hallway of their home.
At the age of 16, after years of helping his dad clean his village's fire trucks, he became a junior volunteer firefighter. Two years later, he earned his certification.
He graduated from Boston College and moved to New York City, where he became an equities trader. But he also planned to be a Big Brother with the Big Brothers-Big Sisters organization. Wherever he went, he carried around extra change to give to the homeless on the street.
The young man worked for Sandler, O’Neill and Partners on the 104th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center, and he saved countless lives before the building collapsed and buried him under 110 stories of rubble.
On Sept. 11, at the age of 24, Welles Crowther became a hero -- the "man in the red bandanna."
Crowther’s family had nearly lost hope of finding his remains by the time they held a memorial service for him at the end of September. More than 1,000 people crammed the Grace Episcopal Church in Nyack, N.Y., and the street had to be closed outside to accommodate the overflow crowd and the fire trucks.
"We were just ready to accept we would never hear anything" about what happened to Welles during his last hour, his mother Alison said in the family home in Upper Nyack, a suburb of New York City. Her husband, Jefferson, joined her for this interview.
"[But] I still had something inside of me saying, ‘keep looking, keep searching,’" Alison said.
Over the next few months, she desperately scanned the television specials, hoping to catch a glimpse of her only son to get some idea of his final hours, but there was no sighting.
"I just had the sense of wanting to be in there with him, to get a sense of what he was going through," she said.
Then, on May 26, The New York Times published witness accounts of the last 102 minutes before the Twin Towers fell.
Jefferson, still unable to watch the horrific images on television or read the accounts of that day, handed his wife the newspaper, saying, "Here, you might want to read this."
Allison scanned the text until her eyes stopped at the section labeled "9:05 South Tower, 78th Floor, Elevator Sky Lobby."
Welles had called his mother's cell phone at 9:12 that morning, leaving a message saying he was OK. He relayed a similar message to his father’s office just before 9 a.m. Welles would have passed through the Sky Lobby on his way down to safety from the 104th floor.
Alison continued reading, her heart pounding as several witnesses mentioned a young man in a red bandanna who directed the injured to nearby stairways and helped people to safety.
"The second I read that, I went, ‘oh my God, there’s Welles -- there he is,’" Alison said. "I just knew it -- in my heart, I knew it."
Welles, since he was a boy, almost always carried a red bandanna in his pocket. His father habitually carried a blue one.
That's when Alison, hoping to piece together her son’s last hour, called Judy Wein and Ling Young -- two women who said the man in the red bandanna had helped them to safety.
Young found herself bloody and dazed as she and several others waited for help after the second plane’s wingtip sliced through the sky lobby.
"All of a sudden, I heard a gentleman … come out of the corner saying, ‘I found the stairs, follow me and only help who you can help,’" Young said.
The man, who was carrying a woman on his back and a red bandanna in his hand, led the group to the stairwell. He gave Young a fire extinguisher, told the group to stay together and continue down the stairs. Then the young man went back upstairs to help others.
"That was the last time I saw him," Young said. "He’s been on my mind every day."
When Young’s group reached a safer floor, she put the fire extinguisher down in the corner of the stairwell.
Wein, badly injured in the sky lobby, was sitting on a radiator waiting for help when a man with a red bandanna over his nose and mouth came running across the room and told people to help whomever they could and led them to an obscured staircase that would lead them to safety.
"He was the cowboy coming in to save the town," Wein said. "In this day and age when we have no real heroes, here was a young man who basically gave his life," she said.
Alison sent photos to Wein and Young to verify that the man in the red bandanna was Welles.
"When I looked at it, I said ‘that’s it, I’m positive,’" Young said. "Without him, I would guarantee I would not be here ... there’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it. He definitely saved my life."
"There’s something about the eyes and the eyebrows that came out to me ...it just all clicked," Wein said. "If it wasn't for Welles, I wouldn't be here."
The Crowther family has gained a sort of peace in knowing Welles spent his last hour helping others.
"He had worked and performed and been active and contributing and been doing what he chose to do, what he felt was important, up to the very last moment," Alison said. "That brought us a great sense of peace."
On March 25, more than six months after the terror attacks, the Crowthers learned that Welles made it down to the makeshift command center on the ground level of the south tower before it collapsed. His body had been found March 19, six days earlier, among a group of firefighters who died there.
"He was doing his duty as a firefighter, and I think he felt totally fulfilled," Jefferson said of the son he also called his "best friend."
"I don’t think for a moment he was thinking about his own safety … He was thinking about the lives of all these people.
"Welles' last hour was his legacy."
Alison and Jefferson and their daughters, Honor and Paige, will go to Ground Zero on the morning of Sept. 11.
"I will be looking up in the sky thinking about what Welles was going through that morning," his mom said.
On Sept. 11, several services will be held in Rockland County, N.Y., for Welles and other victims of the World Trade Center attack. Three days later, professional musicians will join Alison as she plays her violin -- which she picked up for the first time in 20 years on March 19 -- for a concert.
"This is the most horrible thing you can ever imagine happening to any family … the pain was beyond bearing and the only thing we could do to survive this pain is to turn outward and look outward," Alison said.
The Crowthers have established a trust fund that will fuel awards given to high school students who exemplify the type of person their son was, as well as so many others who lost their lives that day.
"Yes, we mourn their loss, but if we only think about what we lost and not what we’ve had, we’ll just die," Alison said. "So we have to live in the beauty of what their lives were -- and who they were as human beings because that’s what we celebrate and that’s what we fill our lives with."
Tax-deductible contributions in memory of Welles Crowther can be sent to:
The Welles Remy Crowther Charitable Trust
P.O. Box 780
Nyack, NY 10960