There are so many ways that people live with grief, especially when that grief is borne of unspeakable tragedy. When she lost her son Welles Crowther in the collapse of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, Alison Crowther was drawn into a tragedy of unimaginable proportions. But after living through more than a decade of grief, she has found her own way to move through it.
“Life-changing situations can make a significant difference in people,” she says. “Welles taught me to treasure every minute of life and to be kind to others.”
Within hours of the event, Crowther says, “I knew in my mother’s heart that he was gone. In life, Welles took joy in living. He embraced being alive. He had so much joy in his family and so much pride in working hard and accomplishing good things.”
In the months following the terrorist attacks, Crowther, a member of The Junior League of Westchester-on-Hudson, learned by piecing together news stories and eyewitness accounts of survivors, that her son, a volunteer fireman with the Nyack’s Empire Hook & Ladder and an equities trader at Sandler O’Neill + Partners LP, which lost 66 of its 171 its employees that day, saved many lives before losing his own when the South Tower crumpled to the ground. A thread connected the survivors’ reports: the man who had helped those injured or overwhelmed by smoke down from the Sky Lobby on the tower’s 78th floor to safety on the 61st where the air was clear before climbing the stairs again in search of others, had worn a red bandana over his mouth and nose. For this mother, this was a clue about her son’s last moments. It was both chilling and comforting.
Welles had picked up the handkerchief habit at the age of six from his dad Jeff who was never without one. He chose red as his color and was photographed throughout his life wearing or carrying a red bandanna with him wherever he went, whether on a bicycle ride, to his desk in downtown Manhattan or on the lacrosse field where he, a varsity lacrosse player for Boston College, wore it under his helmet. It served as a bandage, a signal flag, and ultimately as a mask while he fought fires and smoke on September 11th.
Welles, who was 24 when he died, was found in March 2002 in the lobby of the South Tower amidst personnel from the Fire Department of New York Incident Command Center who had been preparing to ascend the stairs once again in search of survivors. This time they would bring “jaws of life rescue” equipment to extricate victims from debris. But they would never have a chance.
“Welles set the bar really high, he’s an inspiration from which we can step up and do what needs to be done,” she says. “It’s truly a miracle what happened to him.”
One of the early steps up she and her family took was to establish the Welles Remy Crowther Charitable Trust, which encourages young people in their pursuit of academic and athletic excellence through scholarships and support organizations. It is funded by donations and specialty fundraising events, and everyone in the family plays a role—her husband and two daughters, her son-in-law, and her son-in-law-to-be.
In 2011, ESPN produced an award-winning documentary on Welles’s heroism entitled “The Man in the Red Bandanna.” Subsequently the family moved to the next phase of honoring their son and brother. In partnership with the Fetzer Institute, they created the Red Bandanna Project, a curriculum for character development that offers teachers, coaches, and camp counselors lessons on how to teach children leadership skills like those that came so naturally to Welles, particularly on that day. (The spelling of “bandanna” replicates the spelling in one of the earliest news accounts of the story.)
“It teaches the skills you need to put together working teams, how to align yourself with others, how to analyze needs and address them,” she says of the curriculum, which will be translated into Spanish and is being adopted by teachers across the country.
With teaching units entitled “Leadership,” “Forgiveness,” “Team,” “Bridging Divides” and “Caring for Others” that are geared toward elementary schoolchildren through high-schoolers, the manual captures the spirit of a young man who was noted for his leadership, his decision-making, for captaining his sports teams, and for the slogan that appeared in his high school yearbook: “There is no “I” in team.”
A Sustaining member who joined her first of three Leagues in 1971, and who has used her skills to produce everything from community concerts to fundraisers, Crowther does not underestimate the role her time in these Leagues has played in her recovery and re-building.
“My strongest support early on came from Junior League members,” she says.
As for the Red Bandanna Project, Crowther says it was an idea that manifested itself with an almost spiritual force that told her it was the best way to honor what her son did that day.
“I said ‘show me the path and I’ll go there,’” she says.
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To learn more about the charitable trust and the Red Bandanna Project, visit www.crowthertrust.org.
To watch the ESPN documentary, visit “The Men in the Red Bandanna.”