This bandanna’s going to change the world.” 

Jefferson Crowther told The New York Times that’s how his son, Welles Crowther, responded when a coworker teased him about his trademark red bandanna on his desk on the 104th floor.

A Bandanna For Life

According to ESPN’s documentary on the then-future college athlete, the bandanna was a gift to Welles when he was only six from his father, who told him it was for blowing his nose. He gave him a white one too — a pocket square. A unique rite of passage for his boy who would soon be a man. 

“One to show and one to blow,” Jeff Crowther said before they left for church one Sunday. 

The Crowther family says Welles never left home without a red bandanna; he’d wear it under his sports helmets as a teen and as a lacrosse player, #19, at Boston College. He’d wear it under his fire helmet, too. 

He learned the firehouse ways alongside his father, who was member of the local Empire Hook & Ladder Co. No. 1 in Upper Nyack, New York. The New York Times says Welles was cleaning fire trucks by age 7 and became a junior member at 16. He was a full-fledged firefighter by 18. 

But firefighting is not what took him to the Word Trade Center that Tuesday morning. 

Not a Typical Day at Work

Welles Crowther had grown up and played sports in college, but after graduation he landed a job in the professional world working at Sandler O’Neill, an investment bank. He tucked his handkerchief into his business suit every day, reporting to his desk on the 104th floor of the World Trade Center South Tower. That’s where he was when United Airlines Flight 175 flew into the building, hitting the side and lodging between floors 78 and 84. 

Somehow, in the chaos, Welles found the only functioning stairway. After encountering several injured people, he led a group of survivors down seventeen floors before meeting a group of emergency workers escorting people down through a working elevator. He turned and climbed back up to get more. 

Judy Wein was among those Welles helped to safety. She said she saw a young man wearing a red bandanna helping people and administering aid to the injured. Judy said after he led her to safety, she saw the bandanna-wearing man turn back to help others. 

She later told The New York Times that Welles said, “Everyone who can stand, stand now. If you can help others, do so.”

Welles had allegedly pulled out that red bandanna not to blow his nose, but to cover his nose and mouth from smoke and debris. That’s when he became the “Man In Red Bandanna.” 

When the tower was first hit, Welles immediately let his mom know he was okay. But when the tower collapsed, Allison Crowther instinctively knew Welles wouldn’t be coming home that day. Or ever.

“A mother’s heart,” she said. No other explanation. 

Jefferson said Welles was planning to apply for the New York City Fire Department in the near future. He never got the chance to submit his application, but as it turned out, he didn’t need to. Jefferson and Allison were left with no definitive answer about what exactly happened to Welles after he called home, but six months later Welles’ body was found among the uniformed firefighters. 

They still had no idea what events led to their son’s death until almost a year later, when Allison read a story told by September 11 survivors and published in “The New York Times.” There, Allison read Judy Wein’s description of her mystery rescuer — the man in the red bandanna. 

There was no mistaking it. Allison knew they were talking about Welles. After seeking confirmation, Jefferson and Allison got to meet two of the at least 12 people whose lives Welles had saved: Ling Young and Judy Wein, featured in the ESPN documentary

To this day, Ling Young keeps a photo of Welles in her living room. 

Did Welles Crowther’s red bandanna save the whole world? No. Not exactly. But Welles saved the world for 12 people. Welles died not chasing his dream, but living it. 

“No greater love hath one,” said Jeff Crowther in the ESPN documentary. “Than to lay down his life for his fellow man.” 

In honor of Welles Crowther, 1977–2001, and the countless heroes whose lives and stories we may never know. Rest in peace. We’ll never forget. 

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash