For 9/11, I wear a red bandana

Written by Alex Johnson

September 13, 2019

In 2010, my middle school football team huddled up to finish practice before our season opener. My coach, a Boston native and Boston College alumnus, came into the middle of our team circle and quietly said, “Follow me, I know the way.” Silence ensued, as we weren’t exactly sure what our coach was getting at.

“Follow me,” he repeated, “I know the way. As your coach, my goal is to end this season, no matter what our record is, knowing that I have turned you boys into men; men who understand the sacrifices that others have made for you. My goal is to have each one of you stand up for the freedoms that you take for granted in this country and know the history and sacrifices that were made on your behalf.”

Then he told us the story of Welles Crowther. The man in the red bandana.

In the late ’80s, Welles Crowther, a young boy in small-town Nyack, New York, was given two handkerchiefs by his dad. The first, his dad said, was to be used at church with his Sunday best. The second was a red bandana for blowing his nose. “One to show and one to blow,” he told him.  

From then on, wherever Welles went, his red bandana went with him. He wore it under his lacrosse helmet during high school and when he played for Boston College. He carried the red bandana every day to his new job as an equity trader for an investment bank – where he worked on the 104th floor in the South World Trade Center Tower. Everything seemed to be falling into place for Welles – but something deep within him didn’t feel quite right.

When Welles was a boy, he yearned to be a firefighter. As an 8-year-old with a bandana tied around his head, he helped clean firetrucks where his dad was a volunteer firefighter. At the age of 18, he became an official firefighter for Local Empire Hook & Ladder Company No. 1 in Upper Nyack, New York. Sometime in late August 2001, Welles called his dad from his office in the South World Trade Center Tower and said, “Dad, I think I want to switch my career. … I want to be a New York City fireman. If I sit in front of this computer for the rest of my life, I’m going to go crazy.”

Weeks later, on September 11, 2001, at 8:46 a.m., American Airlines Flight 11 hit the North Tower. At his desk, Welles called his mother, letting her know he was OK. At 9:02 a.m., United Flight 175 hit the South Tower, cutting a diagonal path between the 78th and 84th floors. Without hesitation, Welles took off his equities trader hat and put on his fireman hat.

He scrambled down to the 78th floor sky lobby, where many survivors were disoriented from the explosion. “I found the stairs. Follow me. Help those you can help,” he stated calmly and firmly, red bandana tied around his face.

People got up and followed. Welles led them to the only functional stairs on the 78th floor and led them to the 61st floor, where firefighters escorted them to working elevators on the 40th floor. After leading the group to the firefighters, he returned to the burning 78th floor, finding and aiding more survivors. Witnesses said a young man with a red bandana tied around his face went around administering aid and spoke with such authority that they knew they could trust him.

“Everyone who can stand, stand now. If you can help others, do so,” he said.

He led another group down the stairwell to the firefighters on the 40th floor, and once again returned to the burning sky lobby on the 78th floor.

At 9:59 a.m., the South Tower collapsed.  

Six months later, Welles’ body was recovered in the lobby of the South Tower, next to uniform firefighters. At only 24, Welles sacrificed his own life without hesitation to save more than 10 people that day.

My coach finished that story by handing each of us a red bandana.

“Know what this stands for. It stands for those who have stood up against evil, for those who have risked everything for your freedom and safety, and it stands for the type of man I hope you all will aspire to be.”

Nine years later, my red bandana sits on my desk as a stark reminder of the horrible events that happened on Sept. 11, 2001 – but also as a reminder of the people who paid the ultimate sacrifice for my freedoms. On every 9/11, let’s remember the heroes like Welles Crowther, military, police, firefighters, and other public personnel who selflessly answered the call to do the unthinkable for all Americans.

To learn more about the story and amazing life of Welles Crowther, watch the newly released documentary, “Man in the Red Bandana,” by Verdi Productions.

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Alex Johnson
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