As a little boy, Welles Crowther followed his father’s lead as a member of the local Empire Hook & Ladder Co., No. 1 in Upper Nyack. By age 7, he was helping clean the fire trucks. By 16, he became a junior member and gained full firefighter status at 18.
After attending Boston College, Welles Crowther went to work for Sandler O’Neill, an investment bank, and was working on the 104th floor of the South Tower on Sept. 11, 2001, when United Airlines Flight 175 hit the building. [Blogger ‘s nephew was colleague and mentor to Welles the same day, the same time and died together]
After leaving his mother, Alison, a voice mail message telling her that he was O.K., he was never heard from again. Ms. Crowther said she followed her “mother’s instinct” after the attacks, searching for information about her son and his final moments. She combed through news coverage even after her son’s remains were recovered from ground zero six months after the attacks.
Two months after that recovery, on Memorial Day 2002, she read a lengthy New York Times article on the chaos inside the towers before they collapsed, which included eyewitnesses describing an unnamed rescuer: a coolheaded office worker who appeared in the Sky Lobby on the South Tower’s 78th floor.
“A mysterious man appeared,” who managed to locate the only passable stairwell and began marshaling down groups of injured and dazed people, according to the article, which also gave a telling detail about the rescuer that floored Ms. Crowther. He wore a red bandanna over his face to keep out smoke and debris.
“Oh my god, Welles,” she gasped. “I found you.”
She summoned her husband, who nearly 20 years earlier had given two handkerchiefs to their son as he dressed for church one Sunday morning: a white pocket square and a utilitarian red one to blow his nose.
“One to show and one to blow,” Mr. Welles told the boy, who after that was never without a red bandanna. He wore it under his hockey and fire helmets as a teen and under his lacrosse helmet while playing for Boston College. He carried it in the pocket of his business suit every day to the World Trade Center. And apparently, as his parents were now reading, he pulled it out that morning before organizing a group rescue in the burning South Tower on floors not yet reached by firefighters.
According to survivors’ accounts in the Times article, which Ms. Crowther began reading aloud to her stunned husband, her son had searched for a fire extinguisher.
He used it to put out some blazes and assigned a woman, Ling Young, to carry it down the stairs while he carried an injured woman on his back.
He led a first group to the 61st floor, then pulled his bandanna over his mouth and told them he was going back up to guide down others.
He later joined firefighters who had a tool to free trapped victims. His body was eventually recovered among those of firefighters at a command center in the South Tower’s lobby — mere steps from escape.
The Crowthers contacted survivors quoted in the Times article who then reviewed family photographs of Welles Crowther and confirmed that he was their rescuer.
“They describe a calm, strong authoritative figure whom they followed down,” said Jeff Crowther, who at age 72 is still an active volunteer with the Empire fire squad.
Maintaining composure during chaotic rescues was drilled into his son at the Rockland County Fire Training Center, where training included searching smoke-filled rooms and fiery structures and carrying out heavy dummies, he said.
“On 9/11, he put that training to its highest and best use,” said Mr. Crowther, who added that his son told him a few weeks before the 2001 attack that he had decided to leave his finance job and become a New York City firefighter.
Mr. Crowther said he found an application for the firefighter job, partially filled out, in his son’s Manhattan apartment after his death.
He stood Wednesday evening in the theater lobby as the mighty Wurlitzer theater organ belted out old songs, and the audience settled into their seats. Some were survivors who Welles Crowther helped save, including Richard Fern, who recalled making his way down from the 84th floor to the 78th but then being unable to find a passable stairway until he heard somebody yell, ‘Use the stairs over here.’”
This came from a young man “lining folks up to go down the stairs,” said Mr. Fern, who later realized that the young man was Welles Crowther.
In 2006, the New York City Fire Department named Welles Crowther an honorary firefighter. He was also mentioned by President Barack Obama at a 2014 dedication ceremony for the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in Lower Manhattan.
One of Mr. Crowther’s co-workers at Sandler O’Neill once teased him about the red bandanna on his desk, Jeff Crowther said, and Welles had answered, “This bandanna’s going to change the world.”
“It was just a casual remark,” Jeff Crowther said. “But you know, in many ways, it has. The story of that bandanna has gone around the world and touched a lot of people.”