When you think of September 11, 2001, the first thing that might come to mind is the horrible images of planes flying into the World Trade Center as shown on the wall-to-wall news coverage that day.
You may also think of how terrified people were covered in thick, white dust fleeing from lower Manhattan, the signs created by desperate family members with contact phone numbers and photos of loved ones who were missing, and the way black smoke billowed from the World Trade Center site for days and days.
As we mark the 19th anniversary of 9/11 by grieving and paying tribute to those who lost their lives that day, let’s also celebrate the selfless acts and hope that came out of one of the worst days in American history.
The Man in the Red Bandana
Welles Crowther seemed to be preparing to save lives his whole life. He became a junior firefighter at age 16, and throughout high school and college, was a leader to his teammates and classmates.
In 1999, he started working as an equities trader on the 104th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center. Before 9/11, he called his father and said he was considering a career change: He wanted to be a New York City firefighter.
When his building was hit, Welles wrapped a red bandana around his face to guard against the smoke and sprang into action. He found a group of injured people on the 78th floor and led them to a clear stairwell. He took them to the 61st floor, where they met a group of firefighters. Instead of continuing to safety, Welles turned back. He found more people who needed help and started administering first aid. He encouraged all who could walk to evacuate immediately. He stayed behind and, unfortunately, did not survive when the building collapsed.
Welles helped save as many as 12 people on 9/11. In 2006, he was posthumously named a New York City firefighter during a ceremony witnessed by his parents and some of the people he saved.
DCGer Kristen Kropf watches Welles’ story on every anniversary “to remember and honor the bravery of everyday Americans and the uniformed responders who risked their lives to save others.
“Welles’ story is one of selflessness, strength, and courage, and it’s always a bittersweet reminder that we can all do better to exercise those same qualities every day — we are not promised tomorrow,” says Kristen, who feels a deep connection to 9/11. Her father was at work across the river from the Pentagon that morning, and six months earlier, she visited the top of the World Trade Center as part of a school trip.
Click here to watch Welles’ story.
A Small Town Welcomes Thousands of Strangers
Though many of us spent 9/11 at home, glued to our televisions, thousands of Americans were stranded far from home.
When it became clear America was under attack, the country’s airspace closed and planes already in the air headed for the United States had to be diverted. Thirty-eight of them landed in Gander, Newfoundland, with passengers aboard. In a matter of hours, the tiny town of Gander became a place of refuge for nearly 7,000 people and 19 animals in cargo.
The small town didn’t have the resources to feed, clothe, and house thousands of people. But, the citizens of Gander rallied around their visitors, utilizing local stores, as well as their own closets and pantries, to welcome a diverse group of people from around the world.
In addition to providing basic necessities, the people of Gander befriended their visitors, trying to make them comfortable while the horrifying reality of what was happening at home set in.
For the full story of these hometown heroes, read “The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland” by Jim DeFede. The story also became a Broadway musical called “Come From Away.”
Hope was Born on 9/11
According to The Washington Post, 13,238 babies were born in this country on September 11, 2001. And every single one was a reason for hope.
The Washington Post profiled six of those children as they approached their 10th birthday in 2011.
One boy, William Faber, told the story of how his grandfather, whose office was in the Pentagon, took the day off work to be at the hospital for his birth. If it wasn’t for that happy occasion, his grandfather would have been in the part of the Pentagon hit that day.
Several of the kids interviewed said that in addition to celebrating their own milestone, they use their birthdays to find a way to pay tribute to the 9/11 victims.
You can read the full story here.
For a heartwarming video of a teenager born that day, click here.
A Celebration of the Human Spirit
Acts of kindness didn’t just happen on 9/11 or the days following — they have been happening ever since.
Since 2002, Americans have been called to spend the anniversary of 9/11 volunteering in their local communities “in tribute to the individuals lost and injured in the attacks, first responders, and the many who have risen in service to defend freedom.”
The effort was started by families of 9/11 victims as a way to create a legacy for their loved ones. This website can connect you to volunteer opportunities and help you plan your own day of activities. There are even tips for volunteering during COVID-19.
No one woke up 19 years ago expecting to save lives or help thousands of strangers. Sometimes, our most transformative moments happen in the moment. There is no way to prepare for something so significant.
Similarly, many of us have found unexpected moments of heroism and kindness in frontline workers and health care workers during COVID-19.
The anniversary of 9/11 may look different this year. But there are still heroes among us.
How do you commemorate 9/11? Share details about how you mark the anniversary in the comments section.