NEW YORK CITY — Tom Rinaldi knows what makes stories unforgettable.
In his 23 years in journalism, the last 14 of them at ESPN, Rinaldi has told his share of stories, from college football’s national championship to The Masters to Wimbledon. In 2010, when Tiger Woods broke his silence about the multiple affairs that eventually cost him his marriage, Rinaldi got the exclusive.
“The two things that are most compelling to cover, and they’re not equal in any degree, are greatness and the line between living and dying,” Rinaldi said. “No story I’ve ever had the opportunity to tell has resonated more within me than this one.”
“This one” is the story of Welles Remy Crowther, a volunteer firefighter who grew up in Upper Nyack, played lacrosse at Boston College and died saving others in the south tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
Survivors recalled a young man with a red bandanna around his face speaking loud, clear and calm.
"I found the stairs," he said. "Follow me. Only help the ones that you can help. And follow me."
After getting one group to safety — he carried one woman on his shoulders from the Sky Lobby on the 78th floor to the 61st floor — Crowther went back up to save more. He is credited with saving at least eight people, likely more.
It was months before his body was found, in March 2002, among FDNY responders who were preparing to go back up when the tower fell.
Rinaldi tells Crowther’s story in a new book, The Red Bandanna: A Life. A Choice. A Legacy, (Penguin Press, 2016, $25). It was a story Rinaldi first told in 2011 in an Emmy-winning ESPN segment, narrated by actor Edward Burns. (The network is scheduled to re-air it on its Outside the Lines show on Sept. 11.)
“What would you do in the last hour of your life?” Rinaldi writes. “Where would you be? What would it look like? Who would remember it?”
Rinaldi goes the distance to tell Crowther’s story — what he did, where he was, what it looked like and who remembers it — weaving dozens of interviews into a narrative that introduces a dogged athlete who wasn’t the biggest but played harder than most, whether it was hockey and lacrosse for Nyack High School or lacrosse for Boston College.
At every step of the way, from the Empire Hook and Ladder Company in Upper Nyack to the 104th floor of the south tower, where Crowther worked for investment bank Sandler O’Neill, he was rarely without his red bandanna, even though it clashed with his investment-banker suits.
The bandanna was a gift from his father when Welles was seven and the family lived in Pomona.
Getting ready for church one Sunday, Welles saw his father’s pocket square and wanted one just like it.
Jefferson Crowther, Welles’ banker father, handed the boy two handkerchiefs: a white one to use as a pocket square “for show” and a red bandanna to put in his back pocket “for blow.”
The red bandanna became Welles’ Crowther’s trademark, his talisman.
Rinaldi's story turns from the events of that day to its aftermath, as Alison and Jefferson Crowther — like thousands of others with loved ones in the trade center — searched frantically for their son. Jeff made the trips into the city seeking clues in those first days; Alison couldn't bear to see photos of Welles.
In the months that followed, there was a role reversal: Jeff avoided the headlines and news accounts; Alison devoured them, hoping to find some glimpse of Welles.
In a New York Times mention eight months after the terrorist attacks, survivors described the man in the red bandanna.
"I found Welles," she told her husband.
She also found how he spent his final hour.
These are the moments that are hard to read in The Red Bandanna, when Rinaldi takes his readers into the flame and smoke of the south tower in painstaking, painful detail.
Alison Crowther wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Just seeing the towers falling, it takes away the human element,” she said. “By depicting what was happening inside the Sky Lobby, Tom brought it back to the human element, the human tragedy, the suffering that was going on inside the building that none of us could see. It’s important we don’t lose sight of that.”
Rinaldi, who was working for CNN in Los Angeles on 9/11, said Crowther’s story — which was first reported by Journal News reporter Jane Lerner — is inspirational and accessible, a way to process the carnage of a day of unspeakable loss.
“This story encompasses so much about community and family, about character and courage, about self and sacrifice,” Rinaldi said. “The scale of a day which remains indelible is, in some ways, best understood through the lens of a single life.”
The life lens Rinaldi chose ended with a spectacularly selfless act, one that inspired a president.
At the dedication of the National September 11 Memorial Museum on May 15, 2014, President Barack Obama singled out Crowther for embodying “the true spirit of 9/11: love, compassion, sacrifice.”
The president then introduced Ling Young, one of the survivors Crowther led to safety, and Alison Crowther, who told the dignitaries and families she hopes when people come to the museum and see the bandanna displayed in memory of her son, “they will remember how people helped each other that day. And we hope that they will be inspired to do the same, in ways both big and small. This is the true legacy of September 11.”
Rinaldi chronicles Crowther's legacy, from fund-raising Red Bandanna 5K's and football games to the Welles Remy Crowther Charitable Trust, which has created curricula tied to his story and provides scholarships. He also charts how Welles' name lives on, in babies named for him, how Boston College gave its eagle mascot his name.
This week, Tom Rinaldi will travel from his home in Tenafly, New Jersey — less than a mile from the Cresskill home he grew up in — to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, Queens, to cover the U.S. Open. Then he's off to cover football in Green Bay, Wisconsin, for College Game Day before doubling back to Flushing for the Open men's final on Sept. 11.
Over the course of the week, Rinaldi — whose globe-trotting work has earned a dozen national Sports Emmy Awards — will be telling a lot of stories.
Still, given the calendar, and the release of a book that has been more than two years in the making, the writer is sure his thoughts won't be far from a home in Upper Nyack that still bears the scar of a 15-year-old wound, a wound it shares with thousands of other 9/11 families.
"For as many stories as we have the opportunity to tell — and we try to treat each one with all the care and respect that it deserves — some stories simply never leave you," Rinaldi said. "And even more than that, some of the people at the center of those stories never leave your life. In this case, Alison and Jefferson really have never left my life since I first met them in the spring and summer of 2011.”