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That masked man
photo of Welles Crowther '99
Welles Crowther '99, hero

When a United Airlines plane struck the 78th to 84th floors of the second, south tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, between 50 and 200 people were gathered in the 78th-floor Sky Lobby, waiting for an elevator to evacuate them below. Only 12 survived. They described a blast of light and heat, and then darkness, smoke, and confusion.

Surviving also was the story of a young man with a red bandanna over his mouth and nose who appeared out of the chaos, issuing crisp instructions, lending his strength, and guiding the injured to the stairway out. He spoke with command, but wore no official rescue gear. "Anyone who can walk," he said, "walk down the stairs. Anyone who can walk and help someone else, help. There are people here you cannot help anymore, so don't try to." The young man led first one small group of injured and then another down 17 flights of stairs to relative safety. For nine months, no one knew who he was. Last May, when an article in the New York Times recounted his heroics, he was identified as Welles Crowther '99.

Crowther worked as an equities trader at Sandler O'Neill & Partners on the 104th floor of the south tower. After the first plane struck the north tower, he telephoned his mother, Alison Crowther, and left a message: He was evacuating the building. But he apparently never left. His body was discovered last March in unusual circumstances: as one of only two civilians among a cluster of policemen and firefighters in the ground floor lobby of the south tower, a staging area for the morning's rescue efforts.

In fact, Crowther was a fireman, too. From the age of 16, he had, like his father Jefferson Crowther, been a trained volunteer member of the Empire Hook & Ladder Company, in his hometown of Upper Nyack, New York. And like his father, he'd acquired the habit of carrying a bandanna in his pocket; the father carried a blue one, the son, red.

From the testimony of survivors interviewed by the Times and by Crowther's hometown paper, the Journal News, it appears that Crowther got as far down as the 78th floor before the airplane struck his building. Judy Wein, an employee from the 103rd floor, had also made it to the Sky Lobby. The plane's impact left her with a broken arm, three broken ribs, and a punctured lung. "We didn't know where we were. We didn't know what to do," Wein recalls. Then the man in the red bandanna appeared. "He was calm, he showed us where the stairs were, he found a fire extinguisher." Crowther escorted Wein and several other injured survivors down to the 61st floor before turning around and heading back up.

Suffering from burns, Ling Young, who worked on the 86th floor, was still in the Sky Lobby. She recalls hearing Crowther call out, "This way to the stairs," and, along with another man, following his voice. As they descended together, Young saw that Crowther was carrying another woman on his back. At some point, Crowther pulled off his bandanna, and Young saw his face. When the little group neared the 61st floor, he left them and went upstairs once more. No survivor recalls seeing him after that.

Following the Times article, Alison Crowther sent Young a photograph of Welles. "As soon as I saw it, I knew it was him," Young told the Journal News.

On June 2, the Rockland Fire Training Center, where Welles Crowther had trained as a firefighter, held a memorial service to honor the five Rockland County volunteer firemen who died on September 11. Alison Crowther spoke. "Welles must have felt hugely fulfilled that day," she said. "He was not Welles Crowther, equities trader. . . . He was Welles Crowther, firefighter."

Tim Heffernan

The Welles Remy Crowther Charitable Trust has been created to support programs benefiting young people. Details can be had from the trust at 106 Birchwood Avenue, Upper Nyack, NY 10960.

Photo: Welles Crowther '99 played lacrosse for BC. Photo courtesy of the Crowther Family .

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