15 Years Later, Parents Grieve 9/11 Hero Welles Crowther: ‘I Weep Every Day for My Son'

Welles Crowther, the 24-year-old "man in the red bandanna," saved as many as 18 lives on Sept. 11

What to Know

  • Welles Crowther was 24 years old when he died saving as many as 18 lives on Sept. 11
  • For months afterward, the mysterious hero was only known as the "man in the red bandanna"
  • Fifteen years later, his still grieving parents reflect on Welles' legacy

There were many heroes on Sept. 11. But for months, one of them was known only as the "mysterious man in the red bandanna" who saved as many as 18 lives while sacrificing his own. 

In 2002, as the first anniversary of the terror attacks approached, the world -- and his family -- learned who the hero was. Chuck Scarborough told his story then, with the help of his grieving parents. Chuck met with them again last week to see how they're bearing up after 15 years. 

When United Flight 175 struck the south tower at 9:03 a.m., Welles Crowther, a 24-year-old equities trader and volunteer firefighter in his hometown of Nyack, was on the 104th floor. Somehow he found an escape route past the inferno below, and made three round trips up and down the stairs, carrying and leading survivors to safety. 

Welles' body was found six months later. 

When I talked with his devastated parents in 2002, they had just learned what their son did that day. 

"It was a wonderful feeling to have this confirmed and to know he acted in such a courageous and wonderful way," Allison Crowther told me at the time. 

"He was acting as a firefighter at the last hour of his life. He wasn't an equities trader anymore. He was a firefighter," said Jeff Crowther. 

On the first anniversary of the attacks, NBC 4 New York's Chuck Scarborough talked with the parents of Welles Crowther, 24, who explained how they came to learn their son was the hero known only at first as "the man in the red bandanna."

Now, 15 years after their loss, the pain is still just below the surface.

"I weep every day for my son," Jeff says. "Every day." 

"The first year I had so much physical pain it was doing physical damage to my body," Allison says. "The emotional pain. I just realized I had to steel up and put it someplace."

"Every now and then I just break out in uncontrollable sobs. More in the earlier years than now," she says. "But I try to keep focused on the good of his story and the good that his story is bringing." 

The twin towers, shown in all their beauty, before 2001. This is how we want to remember the World Trade Center.

Today, a Welles Crowther charitable trust grants scholarships, and a Red Bandanna football game and run are held at Boston College, Welles' alma mater. An annual Red Bandanna hero's award is give out. Soon, a documentary called "Man in Red Bandana" will be released, as well as a Red Bandanna book. And closest to Allison's heart is the Red Bandanna Project, which offers lessons to school children internationally.

Despite talking about love and forgiveness in the lectures she holds around the world, Allison says she can't forgive those plane hijackers. 

"No. I'm sorry. I can't go that far," she says. 

Last July, Alison and Jeff traveled to the military detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to witness a military tribunal hearing for captured terrorists. The Crowthers came face to face with 9/11 mastermind Kahlid Sheikh Mohammed and four co-conspirators. 

"They have confessed to their actions. And arrogantly said if allowed to do it again, they would," Jeff says. "So no, I can't forgive them. No. Not at all. They took our 24-year-old son from us." 

Both are frustated that after all these years, none of the terrorists have been tried and sentenced. 

"Just bring them to justice. That's what we want. Swift justice," said Alison.

If justice is elusive, some measure of peace, at least, is not. The Crowthers find it near their son's name etched on the parapets surrounding the twin pools at the 9/11 Memorial Museum. 

"I never miss an opportunity to stop over here and say hello to my son," Jeff says. 

"To me, it's a perfect representation of his spirit, and it's very soothing," says Alison. 

Two years ago, when the 9/11 Museum was dedicated, Welles was the centerpiece of President Obama's speech. 

"He led those survivors down the stairs to safety, and carried a woman on his shoulders down 17 flights," said Obama. "Then he went back, back up all those flights, then back down again, bringing more wounded to safety, until that moment when the tower fell." 

Alison said the speech was "absolutely stunning." 

President Obama spoke at the dedication of the 9/11 museum on Thursday, recalling the story of “the man with the red bandanna,” 24-year-old Welles Crowther, who perished while helping people escape the south tower. Welle’s mother Alison Crowther spoke after the president, saying “it is our greatest hope that when people come here and see Welles’ red bandanna they will...

"It was so moving, so beautiful," she says. "I was so proud of Welles and so touched that the president had chosen his story." 

"Chuck, I was so filled with pride you can't believe it," Jeff says. "But of course, I would trade every bit of that pride to have him standing with us here right now. But I was so very proud of him and I knew that the world was looking at him. And the world was seeing what a fine young man he was."

The designers of the 9/11 Memorial call the centerpiece pools "Reflecting Absence" -- the water descending into the earth and vanishing. The names etched in voids instead of raised letters, symbolizing all we lost. 

But reflect for a moment on the names that are not there, the lives saved. On that day of consummate evil, Welles Crowther and the hundreds of others who responded so heroically at the cost of their own lives taught us something valuable, something necessary, about common humanity. 

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