Boston College alum Welles Crowther was 24 and working for an investment bank in the south tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. When the plane struck, Crowther, also a volunteer firefighter, helped injured and stranded people from the 78th floor to the lobby. His name was unknown to those he saved, but they remembered the red bandana he used to protect his mouth and nose from the smoke and dust. Instead of following people out of the building, Crowther headed back up the stairs to help evacuate more. His body was found two months later, in the tower lobby, next to 11 firefighters, just feet away from safety. ESPN Correspondent Tom Rinaldi made Crowther’s story famous when he produced a documentary about Crowther and his now-famous handkerchief for the sports network. He subsequently wrote a book about Crowther, The Red Bandana, which this month is being released in a Young Reader’s edition for children ages 10 and up.
1. How did you first hear of Welles Crowther, and what drew you to his story?
Drew Gallagher, a producer I’ve worked with for years, was a friend of Welles at Boston College. He wanted to share his story — how Welles helped save the lives of several others who were badly injured after the second plane hit, guiding them to safety, before Welles died in the tower’s collapse.
2. You created an iconic short documentary for ESPN, “Man in the Red Bandana.” Why write a book?
The feature, which first aired in 2011, was more than 13 minutes in length. That’s a long time on television, but there was so much more to tell about Welles — before the day his life ended and in the aftermath of his death. To build a fuller portrait of who he was, where he came from, the family who raised him and the experiences that shaped him, to build a context around the choice he made in the final hour of his life, that required a fuller telling. A book was the right venue for that.
3. How did you decide to adapt The Red Bandana for younger readers?
For us as adults and parents, 9/11 is a day we lived through. For a generation of students, it is a day to learn about. How do young people begin to understand the day’s events and its meaning to our country? The book tells the story of that day through the lens of a single life — a life lost, but not before saving others. In reading about Welles, students might see someone not unlike themselves, in their flaws and in their aspirations. We wanted to adapt the book so a younger group of readers could discover his story and find their own meaning inside it.
4. 9/11 was a seismic tragedy, one still hard to fathom for adults. How do you adapt a book centered around that day for readers who are as young as 10?
While the scope of the day’s terror can be overwhelming for any of us to fathom, Welles’s story allows young readers a portal into viewing the day on a different scale. They are carried through the events by a young man they’ve come to know, through the dreams, mistakes, and successes he had up until that fateful day. We were careful in our language not to diminish the losses of that day, but to portray its horrors with sensitivity to the age of the audience. Children are more perceptive than we believe. The book doesn’t sanitize the terror, but doesn’t dwell on its darkest horrors.
5. How long did it take to write the original edition of The Red Bandana? How did you juggle it with your full-time job and family?
I keep a busy schedule with ESPN, as a correspondent telling feature stories and covering a range of live events. It’s a lottery-winning job in nearly every way, and I never broke away from my duties. I was able to write the book only with the incredible support of my wife Dianne and our children, Jack and Tessa. I asked them directly if they thought I should do this, and they were forceful in their answer: Yes. When I asked why, our daughter told me: “Because you were meant to, Daddy.” The entire reporting and writing process took roughly a year and a half.
6. What would surprise readers the most about Welles?
Young readers may be surprised that Welles faced many of the same challenges they do. When we hear the word “hero,” it can make a person seem distant, separate from the rest of us. Welles was bullied, and also beat up a bully. He gave into peer pressure, but also took away friends’ keys at parties. He was on the cusp of a wealthy life on Wall Street, but was in the process of leaving a six-figure salary to become a firefighter. And Welles actually made it down to the lobby of the south tower that terrible morning, and still, he didn’t leave. He helped, until the building collapsed.
7. How has Welles’s story affected you as a father?
I carry a red bandanna most days, in my back pocket, as Welles did. I keep it there as a reminder and example in how I lead my life. I hope that manifests most in my most important role in the world: as a parent. Welles’s heroism took shape long before 9/11, and a lot of its soil was tilled by his remarkable father, Jefferson, who taught him the lessons he applied that day in saving others’ lives. If I can be a fraction of the father Jefferson is, I’ll know I’m teaching our children lessons they might use, when it matters most, in their lives.
8. What do you hope readers will take away from The Red Bandana?
So much about September 11 exists in our collective memory, but a path to its understanding will forever lie in the individual stories of those lost and those saved. I hope the red bandana might exist as a red badge of courage for our time.