Stories from 9/11

One of the things I do along with running Aurelian is give tours a few times a week down at the 9/11 Memorial here in New York City. I have a very personal connection to 9/11 which is the reason that I do it, but it's also an opportunity to share with tourists from around the world a much more specific and personal sense of what happened on that day, stories of the people it affected and also all the detail that went into building the memorial. I thought even though this isn't necessarily related to CBD, it's related to Aurelian and our larger community, so I wanted to tell you some stories that took place on 9/11 that are some of the ones that people on the tour find the most moving and surprising. You may have never heard of them before.

The Survivor Tree

At the 9/11 memorial there are four hundred swamp white oak trees. Oak trees are especially significant because they're very resilient, strong trees - they live over 300 years and that was part of the reason they were chosen. However, there's one tree by the south pool that clearly looks different, and that's because it is. It's a callery pear tree and it was in a planter since the 1970s in the original plaza of the World Trade Center. 

They uncovered the tree a few months into the recovery effort, but it was different from all the other trees they had pulled out because amazingly, despite being under all that heat, weight, and rubble for all those months, it was the only one when they pulled it out, that still had some life, some green leaves still clinging to it. 

picture of the survivor tree 9/11

Picture of the tree the day it was pulled out from the rubble. 

Workers saw this as a sign of strength and resilience, and so rather than discard it, they thought, let's try something. So they brought the tree north of Manhattan to Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx and they replanted it. Again, just an experiment. Well sure enough, within a few months new bark started grow, fresh green leaves started to sprout and the tree came completely back to life. And when the 9/11 Memorial opened in 2011, the tree came with it. It's called "The Survivor Tree."

An amazing detail about The Survivor Tree is that it has already outlived its lifespan by 16 years! When I was out doing the tours in November it was the last tree to lose its leaves and when I was back out there in April it was the first to bloom. Seedlings from The Survivor Tree are sent to communities that have been affected by terrorism or natural disasters. It's a way for us as New Yorkers to say, hey, we understand difficult circumstances and maybe these seeds can bring you a sense of hope and hope for your recovery.

survivor tree 9/11 memorial

The Survivor Tree today

If you visit the 9/11 Memorial make sure to go see The Survivor Tree, it's right next to the south pool and it's still thriving and in great shape and a continued symbolism of our resilience as a city and a people.

The 9/11 Water Rescue

One of my favorite stories to tell on the tour is one I love to share because most people have no idea about it, they've never heard of it before, and it's an absolutely extraordinary story that every single person should know. It's about the water rescue that took place on 9/11.

When both towers were burning, people were obviously frightened and scared, but remember, nobody knew what to expect next. So when the South Tower suddenly came careening down that changed everything and people went running for their lives in a panic. People dispersed in all different directions, but there was one way that people ran that left them trapped. And that was all the people that ran west and who were suddenly reminded that Manhattan is island, because about 150 yards west of the World Trade Center you run into the Hudson River.

Within a few minutes you suddenly had thousands of people stampeding towards the river fence, some of them jumping in the water in a panic - really dangerous, the currents in the Hudson River are no joke. You've seen the footage on the news or on YouTube - people looking like real life zombies, covered head-to-toe in gray ash completely disoriented. Remember at this point everything is shut down: bridges, tunnels, taxis, subways - there's no way to get out. 

It was right around this time that the Coast Guard hovering around the waters in the area saw what was going on and called out a distress signal - "All available boats that would like to help, please make your way to the southern tip of Manhattan." 

Within about 15 minutes you suddenly had hundreds of black dots show up on the horizon, all making their way like an army to the southern tip of Manhattan. You had fairies, private yachts, party boats, fishing dinghies - captains with absolutely zero experience in first responder efforts coming to help.

9/11 water rescue boats

Boats coming to help 

All day they shuttled people from the southern tip of Manhattan to New Jersey and Brooklyn. It wasn't about how many people you could safely fit on each boat, it was how many could you squeeze on. You had janitors sitting right next to CEOs, you had the captains of each boat spray-painting on their own deck where they were going to drop people off.

Get this - it was the largest sea evacuation in the history of our world. The one before that, Dunkirk - 339,000 French and British soldiers rescued over the course of nine days. 9/11 - half a million people in less than nine hours. There's an amazing documentary I really recommend watching, it's about 10 minutes long, narrated by Tom Hanks and it tells this story beautifully. And there's some amazing first-hand anecdotes and interviews from some of the captains that day. And I am talking real New York characters - guys that were in Brooklyn, having a coffee, and suddenly they get this call and they hop in their humble boat and they become part of this historic effort that rescued half a million people in less than 9 hours.

The Man With The Red Bandana

The final story I want to tell you is also the final story I tell the guests on my tour. It's the story of the man with the red bandana. It's about a young man named Welles Remy Crowther. Welles Crowther grew up in a suburb of a New York, Nyack, about 30 minutes north of the city. When he was 6 years old his father pulled out a white handkerchief and put it in his son's blazer pocket and said "son, that one's for show." And then his dad pulled out a red bandana, brought it up to his nose and said, "And this one's for blow!"

Well, Welles kept that red bandana with him his entire life. In elementary school, you know, he had it dangling out his back pocket just the right amount to look cool and rebellious walking down the hallways. He then got really into sports - lacrosse, in particular - and before every game he would take the red bandana, wrap around his head, with his helmet over. At 16 he became obsessed with becoming a firefighter and he actually became a volunteer firefighter in his hometown of Nyack where actually many New York firefighters live. At 18 he went to Boston College and played for the varsity lacrosse team there. And sure enough before every game, red bandana around the head with the helmet over. At 22 he graduated and he got a job on the 104th floor of the South Tower at an equities trading company. A few months into his job he called his dad and said "Dad, you know, I'm really thinking about a change in careers." And his Dad was surprised, "What's the matter Welles, you just started?"  Welles replied "I just don't think I can sit behind this desk for the rest of my life."  His Dad then asked, "Well Welles, what do you want to do."  Welles replied, "Dad, I really want to be a NYC firefighter."

A few months later September 11th happened. One statistic that I share in the beginning of the tour is that 90% of the people that died in the twin towers on 9/11 were at, or above the point of impact. Welles was on the 104th floor of the south tower, the plane that struck that tower took out floors 67-75. After the south tower was struck Welles picked up the phone and called his mom, left a message on her answering machine, "Mom, it's Welles, I just want to let you know that I'm okay."  He then somehow, made his way all the way from the 104th floor down to the 67th floor, where he rescued three women, including one he threw over his back and walked them down another seventeen flights of stairs to the nearest working elevator and sent them down to safety.   

It was right around this time when he turned to go back up the stairs. At this point, there was a lot of smoke and fumes in the stairwell. So he reached in his back suit pocket, took out that red bandana and wrapped it around his nose. He made his way back up to the 67th floor. When he got there he yelled out to all the people on the floor, "all that can stand please do so now and come with me." He escorted about 10 more people, this time all the way down to street level and as they were walking on the sidewalk to safety they turned around and saw him going right back in. It was right around this moment when the south tower collapsed.

Welles' family never knew what had happened from the moment he left that message on his mom's answering machine to the moment of his death. Until a few months later, in a New York Times article that had the first hand accounts of many people that got out of the towers. And there was one account given by a group of women who remembered seeing a man coming out of the smoke and fumes wearing...a red bandana. And when Welles' parents read that they suddenly thought, "oh my god, Welles, we've found you." They then took his photo to those women in person and asked "was this the man that rescued you?" Sure enough the ladies said "yes, that was him, I recognize him!" So suddenly his family knew. 

Welles' body was found a few months into the recovery effort relatively unscathed and intact. It was his body, surrounded by the bodies of New York firefighters. He had spent those final moments assisting those firefighters he so wanted to be a part of.

That is the story of the man with the red bandana - Welles Remy Crowther. Often times there's a red bandana placed on his name at the memorial. He is not forgotten.

Welles Crowther red bandanaWelles Crowther Boston College Lacrosse

May we never forget.



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