The Red Bandanna Summary

Tom Rinaldi

The Red Bandanna

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The Red Bandanna Summary

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In 2016, the well known ESPN on-air correspondent Tom Rinaldi published The Red Bandanna, in equal parts an autobiography and a eulogy for a young man who lost his life in the terrorist attacks that hit the World Trade Center on 9/11, but not before selflessly and courageously saving several other people also caught in the towers. Through interviews with family members and 9/11 survivors, Rinaldi builds a portrait of Welles Crowther, showcasing the qualities that eventually led the twenty-four-year-old to fearlessly plunge into the wreckage to do what he could for those around him.

Welles Crowther grew up in a loving, close-knit, religious family in the town of Nyack, New York. When Welles was seven years old, his father was trying to show him the difference between formal and informal manners, so he gave his son a white handkerchief to tuck into his suit pocket, and a red handkerchief to keep hidden in case he ever actually needed to wipe his face. Welles loved the red handkerchief, and brought it with him everywhere he went from that day on. Eventually, as Welles grew up, joining his father as a volunteer firefighter, this “unexpected gift” became a prized possession and a “superhero” lucky charm.

Welles was an honors student who just missed becoming valedictorian and an excellent athlete who was good enough to play varsity but not to be recruited. After high school, he went to Boston College, where he played lacrosse with the red bandana wrapped around his head – a signature look that marked Welles as someone willing to be different. When he graduated, he decided to find work in New York City as an equities researcher and analyst at the firm Sandler O’Neill, located on the 104th floor of the World Trade Center’s South Tower. It made sense for him to pursue finance as a career – his father was also a banker, and the industry was familiar.

At Sandler O’Neill, Welles’s red bandana became a familiar fixture. His coworkers remember him putting the handkerchief on the corner of his desk, then grabbing it to wave it like a flag when he wanted to attract the attention of fellow researchers.

Living in Manhattan was a dream, but Welles soon realized that his desk job wasn’t fulfilling his need to be of service to others. During the summer of 2001, Welles called his surprised father to discuss his desire to quit finance altogether and, instead, apply to be a firefighter with the FDNY – picking up his high school experiences of volunteering at the firehouse, loving its sense of community and responsibility.

After the fall of the Twin Towers on September 11, like many of the people who had been working in the buildings, Welles called his parents to tell them he was ok, so far – and then was lost. His parents had no idea what happened to him, and after weeks of first responders combing through the rubble for survivors or bodies, it became clear that he was gone forever. They found solace by bonding with the families of others who had been lost.

However, eight months after the attacks, Welles’s mother found an interview with a survivor that transformed the way she would think about her son’s death from then on. A woman who had been severely injured on the South Tower’s seventy-eighth floor described how she and many others had been rescued from danger by a young man unknown to her. He met them while carrying a woman on his back – he had been carrying her down twenty flights of stairs already – and then led them to a stairwell where firefighters could help them get the rest of the way out of the building. Instead of going out with the group, the young man went back up the stairs to retrieve more survivors. The woman giving the interview didn’t get his name. The only identifying feature she saw was a red bandana wrapped around his mouth to keep out the dust and smoke.

Welles’s parents confirmed that this heroic man was indeed their son by sending his picture to the woman in the interview. As the story spread, other survivors recounted their interactions with the mysterious red-handkerchiefed man who had saved their lives. The full story of his actions on that morning emerged: minutes after the plane struck the towers, Welles searched the stairwells for survivors, rescuing group after group and then going back into the building over and over again. He died when the South Tower collapsed.

The Crowthers’ mourning changed into the desire to make sure that Welles hadn’t died in vain – they wanted to memorialize his valor and self-sacrifice. In part because of their efforts to make sure his story was told, Welles was posthumously named an officially recognized member of the FDNY – the first time in its history any civilian was so honored. Now, there are yearly Red Bandana days at Boston College to keep alive the memory of Welles’s heroic actions. When the 9/11 Museum at Ground Zero was opened, President Barack Obama spoke about one of the lives lost on that day – the life of Welles Crowther.