I live and work in the city that never sleeps. New York City changes so fast that you may go to sleep one night and the next a completely different establishment has taken over the space. One day there is an Italian place down the corner from my apartment, the next it is an Asian fusion restaurant, and the following flavor of the day is still TBD. Ha, and searching for an apartment is a whole animal in itself! You better have all your paperwork and certified check ready as soon as you step foot in that shoebox apartment. Sign on the line please!!!

And although us NYers are always in a rush and running ten miles a minute (if that is even possible), there is one day that makes us all slow down. Eleven years ago NYC and America witnessed the worst of mankind. We saw the World Trade Center get hit by planes and fall in front of our eyes, the Pentagon get hit by another plane, and another crash into a field in Pennsylvania.

September 11th, 2001 was a crisp, sunny and beautiful pre-Fall morning. I was a sophomore in high school sitting in my Trigonometry class 30 miles away from NYC. Right before we were supposed to switch periods, I saw my math teacher leave the classroom and return visibly upset. After a couple of minutes the Principal came on the PA and told us that the WTC had been hit by a plane. The ensuing hours seemed to move in slow motion. The days, weeks and months that followed were so surreal. How could America, land of the free and home of the brave, be under attack on home soil?

We all have our own 9/11 story and I still get teary eyed and chills when I think about that day. I grew up in NJ and NYC was my backyard. As a result, the surrounding suburbs of NYC were as much affected as NYC by stories of escape and also loss. I knew some people that fortunately were able to get out of the buildings and hop the last bus into NJ before the city was shut down. And then there were others who rushed to save other people in the midst of burning and buckling buildings.

One of those people was a family friend’s son from my swim and tennis club, Welles Crowther. Although Welles was several years older than me, I do remember his kind and effervescent personality. Welles worked in the South tower and when the planes hit, his instinct to always help other people shone brightly.  As a trained volunteer firefighter, Welles put his red bandanna over his face to protect him from the smoke and started helping people get out of the burning building. He saved numerous lives that day, but unfortunately he never made it out.

Several months later stories started surfacing that a man with a red bandanna helped to save their lives. Welles’ family knew that it was him. Although nothing can ever replace a loved one, Welles’ story and heroic actions became one of inspiration. In the midst of atrocious acts of mankind, the unbreakable kindness and good of the human spirit prevailed.

Below is an excerpt from the Crowther’s Trust website:

“Welles’ final hour remained a mystery until an article about September 11th printed in The New York Times (5/26/02) mentioned eyewitness reports of a mysterious man in a red bandanna on the 78th floor Sky Lobby of 2 World Trade Center when the second plane crashed into the south tower.

This is where Welles was likely to have been at that time, since he was ultimately able to get down to the main lobby before the tower collapsed.

Eyewitnesses reported that, after the plane had hit into the Sky Lobby, a man suddenly appeared “out of nowhere”. He was stripped to his T-shirt and wearing a red bandanna to cover his nose and mouth, protection against the smoke and debris.

This man organized a rescue effort on the floors high above where the official rescue workers were able to reach. He called for fire extinguishers, he found and directed dazed and confused victims to the only stairwell that was open for escape, and he carried a woman down to the 61st floor, then returned to the 78th floor to rescue more people. He turned back up once again after bringing the second group of survivors down.

Eyewitnesses report that the man spoke calmly, with authority, and was obviously well trained. He is reported to have saved many lives that day.

Knowing that her son always carried a red bandanna in his back right pocket, Welles’ mother believed that the description of the mysterious man fit her son: his character, his training and his likely location at the time. She sent recent photographs of her son to the eyewitnesses.

The witnesses confirmed that Welles Crowther was the “Man in the Red Bandanna” who helped to save their lives and others on September 11th.”

Photo by Kristen M. Brown.

Last September, a few weeks after the WTC Memorial opened, I was fortunate enough to get tickets to visit the site. On another beautiful, sunny and crisp day my parents and I made our way to the Memorial with red bandannas in hand. Just as we were about to enter, we heard bagpipes and happened to find ourselves at the finish line of the annual Tunnel to Towers memorial run. I was overcome with emotion and my eyes started to well up with tears. Ten years later I was still shook up at the events of 9/11, but also in awe of how so many people have been able to celebrate the lives of lost ones. From the ashes the Phoenix will rise.

So I take today to dedicate my post to all the brave men and women who helped to save lives that day and the servicemen/women past, present and future who fight to keep America safe. God Bless America.

To learn more about Welles, click here. ESPN also did a phenomenal short documentary on Welles. Click here to watch.

…red bandanna tied to my surfboard bag…