9/11 is a stand-alone word. Technically it’s not even a word and grammatically it’s a hot mess, but no one misinterprets its meaning; the day nearly 3,000 people were viciously murdered by terrorists as the Twin Towers came toppling down. Today of course marks the 15 year anniversary.
My original thought was to do a reblog from last year that focused on what to me signified the most horrific part of that awful day; the jumpers who faced the impossible choice of whether to die from extreme heat and smoke exposure while their skin melted away, or jumping to certain death thousands of feet below.
Thinking about this now brings up raw emotions; thirst for justice for the dead, sadness for their loved ones and extreme frustration that our leadership seems intent on making the same mistakes that made this possible and a new attack imminent.
Time has softened the edges a bit though and while it’s still important to “never forget”, the words courage and love seem more relevant over hate and anger. Perhaps the ugly partisanship of a particularly divisive and bitter election year has gotten to me, but I think remembering the few spots of good from that awful day offers a better way.
An excellent place to start is Peggy Noonan’s recent Wall street Journal column on the incredible story of Welles Crowther, *Remembering a hero 15 Years After 9/11.
As Noonan writes,
“Welles was beloved—bright, joyous, grounded. Family was everything to him. He idolized his father, Jefferson, a banker and volunteer fireman. They went to the firehouse together when Welles was a child. Welles would clean the trucks, getting in close where no one else could fit. One Sunday when Welles was 7 or 8 his mother dressed him for church in his first suit. His father had a white handkerchief in his breast pocket. Could he have one? Jefferson put one in Welles’s front pocket and then took a colored one and put it in Welles’s back pocket. One’s for show, he said, the other’s for blow.
He carried a red bandanna all his life.” It was a talisman but practical, too. It could clean up a mess. When he’d take it from his pocket at Sandler O’Neill they’d tease him. What are you, a farmer. He’d tease back: “With this bandanna I’m gonna change the world.”
As Welles went down the stairwell he saw what happened on the 78th floor sky lobby. People trying to escape had been waiting for elevators when the plane hit. It was carnage—fire, smoke, bodies everywhere. A woman named Ling Young, a worker for the state tax department, sat on the floor, badly burned and in shock. From out of the murk she heard a man’s voice: “I found the stairs. Follow me.”
Apparently Welles kept leading people down from the top floors to the lower ones, where they could make their way out. Then he’d go up to find more. No one knows how many. The fire department credits him with five saved lives.
They found him six months later, in the lobby of the south tower. He’d made it all the way down. He was found in an area with many firefighters’ remains. It had been the FDNY command post. It was where assistant fire chief Donald Burns was found. He and his men had probably helped evacuate thousands. Welles could have left and saved his own life—they all could have. But they’d all stayed.
The Crowthers never knew what he’d done until Memorial Day weekend 2002. The New York Times carried a minute-by-minute report of what happened in the towers after the planes hit. Near the end it said: “A mysterious man appeared at one point, his mouth and nose covered with a red handkerchief.” It mentioned Ms. Young and Ms. Wein. The Crowthers sent them pictures of Welles.
That was him, they said. Ms. Wein had seen his face when he took the bandanna from his face as the air cleared on the lower floors. Ms. Young said: “He saved my life.”
Welles Crowthers represented the best of who we are; selfless, brave, instilled with a need to protect others. There were many like him there that bright September morning the world came crashing down, too many who like Welles never made it home so that others could live.
The question is why? Where does this courage and sense of duty to put others first come from? Noonan puts it best:
“The way I see it….courage comes from love. There’s a big unseen current of love that hums through the world, and some plug into it more than others, more deeply and surely, and they get more power from it. And it fills them with courage. It makes everything possible.
People see the fallen, beat-up world around them and ask: What can I do? Maybe: Be like Welles Crowther. Take your bandanna, change the world”.
Yup. Seems simple enough, no?
*To get behind the WSJ pay wall and view Noonan’s column in full, google the title, “Remembering a Hero 15 Years After 9/11”.