On Sept. 11, 2001 a young man led several people down the stairs to safety after a plane hit the south tower of the World Trade Center. The people he helped only knew him as “the man in the red bandanna.”
His name was Welles Crowther, 24, who died when the tower collapsed because he stayed behind to help more people.
ESPN correspondent Tom Rinaldi, who tells Crowther’s story in his new book, “The Red Bandanna,” speaks with Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson.
Book Excerpt: ‘The Red Bandanna’
By Tom Rinaldi
They waited at bedrock.
Seven stories below the ground, seventy feet deep in the earth, they sat. On a bright spring morning, while flags flew at half-staff in the memorial plaza far above, some seven hundred had made the long descent to gather in this chamber. Together they met: strong and weak, mournful and hopeful, persistent and diminished. Families and firefighters, city officials and rescue workers, orphans and political leaders, they waited for the solemn ceremony to begin.
Shortly after ten-thirty a.m., the president of the United States stepped to the lectern, dressed in a black suit and tie. He faced a cavernous room called Foundation Hall, a soaring open space with remnants of twisted steel and an exposed sixty-four-foot-high slurry wall, bolted in place as if it were still holding back the tidal waters of the nearby Hudson River. The president looked out at the numbered seats and ordered rows set up for the program, at the day’s invited guests, including the governors of New York and New Jersey, the previous two mayors of New York City and the one currently holding the office, and a former president and his wife, who was the current secretary of state.
In this hole in the heart of a city, in a quiet and somber voice, Barack Obama began his speech for the occasion: the dedication ceremony of the National September 11 Memorial Museum at ground zero.
If it were a time for platitudes or soaring themes, he chose not to use them. He spoke slowly, in the measured and deliberate cadence of an elegy. As he delivered his first words, a mother sat backstage. After the president’s remarks were finished, she would walk to a different microphone and share some of her family’s story. For now, she sat out of sight of the assembly. There was a television monitor set up for her to watch the president’s address, but she couldn’t bear to look. Her eyes remained on the floor.
In the second row of seats, directly behind the mayor of New York City, a father kept his chin up and eyes forward, looking toward the podium. It was good that his wife would soon speak for him and their family. He couldn’t yet bear to; the emotion would overwhelm him. As the president spoke, he sat and listened. At the first mention of his son’s name, he began to weep. On September 11, 2001, in the worst terrorist attack in the history of America, 2,977 people died. Standing in the footprint of the fallen towers that spring morning, the president chose to speak about just one. He singled out a young man who helped save people he didn’t know in the South Tower of the World Trade Center before its collapse. He recounted the scene in the 78th floor sky lobby. As fires burned and smoke filled the air, in darkness and chaos, a voice rose, leading people toward the stairs and then down seventeen flights to safety. One victim was too weak to make the descent, so he carried her across his back. When the young man reached a lower floor with clear air, he urged the group to continue down. Then he left them, turned around, and climbed those long flights back up, looking for others he might rescue. For months, the man’s identity remained a mystery, but one clue had emerged, the common thread to the descriptions of the people he guided and carried.
“They didn’t know his name,” the president told those assembled at the ceremony. “They didn’t know where he came from. But they knew their lives had been saved by the man in the red bandanna.”
The words echoed across the hall and off a graffiti-covered steel beam, standing tall in this part of the museum, a remnant of the towers. Amid the colorful messages and notes scrawled across the steel of the I beam was a photo of the young man, a picture holding the promise that one day he would be found.
By the time he was recovered at ground zero in March 2002, six months after the towers collapsed, the truth was beginning to emerge. And so, too, would the story of his finest moments, his selfless, fatal choice on that September morning. Welles Crowther was the man in the red bandanna.
“All those who come here will have a chance to know the sacrifice of a young man,” the president said toward the end of his speech. “A man who gave his life so others might live.”
Excerpted from the book THE RED BANDANNA by Tom Rinaldi. Copyright © 2016 by Tom Rinaldi. Reprinted with permission of Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group USA, a Penguin Random House Company.