After 24-year-old equities trader Welles Crowther died in the 9/11 terror attacks in New York City, his mother, Alison Crowther, spent many sleepless nights wondering how her son spent his final moments.
“So many people were trapped and suffering,” Alison tells PEOPLE. “That was the hell I was having, thinking this was his end.”
After months of searching for any scrap of news about Welles, her heart skipped a beat when she read a news story the following May that mentioned an anonymous young man in a red bandanna who risked his life saving people who were injured and stranded in the burning south tower that horrific morning. Not only had Welles been a volunteer firefighter trained to handle emergencies, he never went anywhere without the trusty red bandanna his father, Jefferson Crowther, taught him to carry in his back pocket as a boy.
“When I read that, I said, ‘Oh my God, Welles. I found you,’ ” Alison tells PEOPLE.
Welles, they later learned, saved as many as 18 people that day but ended up losing his own life.
“He was my best friend and I was his,” says Jefferson. “I weep for him every day.”
But, he says, “He died saving lives. It gives us great comfort to know that up until the end, Welles was doing what he wanted to be doing. He wasn’t trapped somewhere. He was his own man, making decisions to help other people.”
Today, Welles is known as ‘the Man in the Red Bandanna,’ a 9/11 hero symbolizing selflessness and courage in the face of adversity.
“People carry red bandannas now as a symbol of strength,” says Alison. “One boy recently told me that Welles and the bandanna are symbols of the kind of man he’d like to be.”
Now, PEOPLE is joining the American Heroes Channel (AHC) and the Welles Remy Crowther Charitable Trust to further honor Welles and celebrate everyday heroes with the Red Bandanna Hero Award.
If you know someone who has made a difference and enhanced people’s lives in some extraordinary way, submit your nominee to AHCtv.com/redbandanna by July 4, 2017.
The winner will receive a $10,000 donation to the charity of their choice and be featured in PEOPLE, as well as in an hour-long special airing on AHC in the fall.
Over the years, Welles’ act of bravery also inspired the Emmy Award-winning ESPN documentary, The Man in the Red Bandana; The New York Times bestselling book, The Red Bandanna: A Life, A Choice, A Legacy, by Tom Rinaldi; the children’s book, The Man in the Red Bandanna, written by Welles’ sister, Honor Crowther Fagan; and the Welles Remy Crowther Charitable Trust, which Alison and Jefferson founded in 2001 to give scholarships to promising students.
Raising awareness about selfless acts of heroism “elevates everybody,” says Alison.
‘He Will Always Be in My Heart’
In Welles’ short life, he tried to help others whenever he could. A top athlete who played ice hockey and lacrosse in high school in Nyack, New York, and at Boston College, where he graduated with a degree in economics, Welles spent his summers coaching youth lacrosse.
“He loved working with kids,” says Jefferson. “He volunteered with a number of organizations that worked with kids.”
Welles was a top scorer in lacrosse, but was known more for assisting other players, says Jefferson. “He was a real team player,” he says. “He wanted everyone to do well. He was a really good guy.”
One who put others before himself on one of the most horrific days in U.S. history. On the morning of 9/11, Welles was in his office on the 104th floor of the World Trade Center’s south tower when the first plane hit the north tower at 8:45 a.m. As workers waited anxiously for elevators in the south tower’s 78th floor Sky Lobby, a second plane struck their building at 9:03 a.m.
Badly burned and disoriented in the haze of smoke and debris, auditor Ling Young didn’t know what to do until a man came out of nowhere, directing her and others to the only functioning staircase. “He said, ‘Follow me. I know the way,’ ” says Jefferson.
Carrying another injured woman over his shoulder, Welles led the terrified group to the 61st floor, where the air was clear and where they could continue to head downstairs.
But instead of joining them, he went back up at least two more times to help people before the tower collapsed.
His body was found on March 19, 2002, at a New York Fire Department command post on the ground floor.
“Without him, I wouldn’t be here,” Young says in the ESPN documentary about Welles. “He will always be in my heart.”
He also lives in the hearts of his family who misses him so much. “Welles was a remarkable young man,” says Jefferson. “It was a delight to know him.”
Adds Alison: “We’ll never get him back, but to know we can make some good come from it is a wonderful thing.”