Indifference Isn’t The Answer

By Will Coffman, Guest Writer

This past Monday marked the 22nd anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks. During America’s darkest hour, acts of selflessness, courage and unity shone through all the desolation and despair, and the country vowed to never forget both the horrors and the good that stood against it. 

But how can you never forget something you never witnessed in the first place? That is a question my generation has adopted. To Generation Z, 9/11 is a day we were either too young to understand or born too late to see. Indeed, college campuses are now populated with the latter, and a walk around campus on the anniversary will signal to you an atmosphere of indifference in contrast to what older adults still remember vividly. 

I feel slightly different than most of my peers. My mother is a New Yorker who lost friends that day, and she made sure to show me the newspapers — mostly local — full of pictures of the fallen that imprinted on me the evil of that day better than any documentary ever could. 

9/11 has never felt foreign to me, and so I feel obligated to tell you, my fellow Xavier students, that efforts must be made to erase this apathy and commit ourselves to understanding what happened 22 years ago. 

This is not a retelling of the attacks. It also isn’t a list of statistics or paragraphs consisting of witness testimonies. I want to focus on one story that sums up what was lost on 9/11. 

Over the summer I picked up a book to read poolside — a book that looked interesting, but was picked mostly out of curiosity rather than excitement. The book’s title was The Red Bandana by Tom Rinaldi. I had no expectations for it, only hoping it was good enough to keep me entertained while out in the sun. Once I opened the first page, I realized how foolishly low my expectations were and that I was reading what would become one of the most impactful books of my life. 

It tells the story of a man named Welles Crowther, a good man, a volunteer firefighter in his teen years, a talented lacrosse player for Boston College — a Jesuit university like Xavier — who had dreams of one day being a firefighter, but was initially maintaining a finance job after graduating. He was an ordinary person, someone with dreams not too different from us. Still young with an abundance of opportunities ahead and different paths that could take him anywhere in life. It’s not hard to see ourselves in him, to see our own ambitions, our own hopes. Hopes which would be lost in unspeakably awful ways. 

9:03 a.m. is the exact minute 9/11 became infamous in American history. It was when United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower, leaving no doubt as to what was happening. White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card’s famous whisper to President George W. Bush summed it up best: “A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack.” 

Inside the building itself, people were consumed by panic and dread. However, there was a calming voice in the chaos, a voice that led survivors of the disaster to safety, bringing them down to working elevators, before going back up into the flames. The man behind the voice would come down again, and go up again, passing up the chance to escape multiple times, returning to the danger, returning to help. The man was Welles Crowther, 24, identified by multiple witnesses as the man who saved their life through his wearing of a red bandana — a gift given to him in his youth by his dad — a precious heirloom he would never part with. 

In March 2002, the body of Welles was found next to firefighters. In 2006, he was posthumously named as one of them, becoming an honorary New York City firefighter. Welles Crowther was credited with saving as many as 18 lives. His courage inspired many, including former President Barack Obama, who would speak of his heroism at the dedication of the 9/11 museum on May 15, 2014. 

“He led those survivors down the stairs to safety and carried a woman on his shoulders down 17 flights. Then he went back. Back up all those flights. Then back down again, bringing more wounded to safety. Until that moment when the tower fell,” Obama said. 

9/11 was many things, but I passionately disagree it was demoralizing. America’s unity was never proven stronger. The courage and willingness to sacrifice by her people were never less in doubt. The tale of Welles Crowther, a man just like us — young, eager to see everything the world could offer — is a testament to that. The most visible scar of 9/11 is the absence of two silver giants in the New York skyline, but the higher cost was the lives and aspirations of thousands of people. 

It’s in their memories we must pledge to never forget, and we must never let them go in vain.