UPPER NYACK, N.Y. -- It was never on Matthew J. Weiss's bucket list to make a movie.
The then New York traffic attorney -- now living in Florida -- was just doing his job, meeting with his Hudson Valley Bank banker for lunch when that banker -- Upper Nyack resident Jefferson Crowther -- shared the story of his son.
Welles Remy Crowther, a Nyack High School grad and a member of Empire Hook & Ladder Co., No. 1 in Upper Nyack, was responsible for saving at least 10 people on September 11th, though the family did not hear his story until eight months later and only due to an ordinary object ... a red bandana.
It was a serendipitous discovery when eyewitness accounts came out saying how a man with a red bandana had, despite intense fires, and crippling crash site debris, escorted them to safety. Jane Lerner, then a reporter for The Journal News who first broke the story of the man's identity who now serves as Director of Strategic Communications for Rockland County Executive Ed Day, credits Welles' mom, Alison, for putting the pieces together after reading survivor stories in The New York Times and asking them to look at photos of Welles.
The 24-year-old always carried a red bandana in his back pocket; his father Jefferson usually had a blue one.
When Weiss heard the story -- which over the years has been widely reported -- he knew he had to make a movie -- despite having no filmmaking experience.
"Jeff told me something was already in the works," said Weiss. "I was happy that it was getting made but disappointed that it wasn't by me."
That was in 2006.
When, in 2011 Weiss asked about the status of the film, Crowther told him the project had fallen through.
"Keep in mind I never took a class in filmmaking, never read a book on filmmaking, and never previously had a desire to make a film," said Weiss. "But I knew I had to share this story. I like to say that the story found a filmmaker."
He also said he knew that the film had to be the most comprehensive piece about Welles and include important pieces that had not yet been told. "ABC/CNN and the like have told this story in five to ten minute news bites," he said. "I didn't want to just rehash what other people have said but instead provide additional insight and context."
That included finding as many survivors as possible that Welles saved as well as information about his final moments.
The result is "Man In Red Bandana," a 75-minute documentary narrated by Gwyneth Paltrow which contains an original song about Welles performed by Lyle Lovett. Weiss says they are nearing the end of post production and working on distribution.
As for the story, it begins when Welles, an equities trader with the investment banking firm Sandler O’Neill & Partners, was working on the 104th floor of the South Tower when United Airlines Flight 175 struck the building from the 78th to the 84th floors.
Weiss said it was virtually impossible for folks at or above the 78th floor to survive. In fact, 599 perished at or above this level. However 18 managed to get through this carnage -- basically a crash scene a mile up in the air.
"You're talking people who were severely burned, had broken bones, were trapped under debris," said Weiss. "Yet, we know that Welles managed to help, at least, 10 of them who statistically were most likely going to die."
Survivors reported how a man suddenly appeared out of nowhere, stripped to his T-shirt and wore a red bandana to cover his nose and mouth, protection against the smoke and dust.
This man organized a rescue effort on the floors high above where the official rescue workers were not yet able to reach. He called for fire extinguishers, all the while directing dazed and confused victims to the only stairwell that was open for escape. He is known to have carried a woman down to the 61st floor, then return to the 78th to rescue more people. He turned back up once again after bringing the second group of survivors down.
According to Alison, the family recently learned that Welles escorted the second group to safe passage, but did not go down with them as he had with the others. "Apparently he returned to the sky lobby after they were on their way, probably to check for other victims," she said.
His remains were recovered on March 19, 2002 alongside NYFD firefighters and emergency services personnel who had been operating a NYFD Command Center in the lobby of the South Tower.
"It's not always easy to hear and watch these things," said Weiss of the archival footage in his movie. "But it's important."
The ending of the film is uplifting as viewers will learn how Welles' family, friends and communities honor him as well as learn about how total strangers pay tribute to him throughout the U.S. in a multitude of diverse and touching ways.
There is also a whole other story on how this New York traffic ticket lawyer got Gwyneth Paltrow, who never before lent her voice to the narration of a documentary, to participate. And how he was able to get Lyle Lovett to perform an original song for the film.
Filming began in April 2011 and included shooting scenes in Nyack, among them the Crowther's home in Upper Nyack, at a 9/11 service at Nyack's Memorial Park, at Nyack High School (where his number 19 is retired), at the firehouse where Welles served as a volunteer fire fighter, and at the Nyack Firefighter Memorial.
Weiss is currently traveling the country doing private screenings and seeking distribution for the film. He describes making "Man In Red Bandana" as "one of the greatest honors" of his life.
"For a piece of fabric – a bandana -- to be the key for a family to unlock the mystery of their son, for it to allow the family to learn how Welles spent the final hour of his life (his finest hour) and how it has changed the family's perspective on their loss, has been an incredible journey for me," said Weiss. "Welles has left a legacy throughout the United States including 'red bandana' artwork, songs and sermons, and even in 15-plus children that now bear his name.
"It's just an incredible story."
Added Lerner, who is still in touch with the Crowthers, it's amazing what they were able to put together in his memory during a time of great grief. The bottom line, she said, is that Welles didn't have to die. He could have gotten out but he chose instead to stay and help others."
Said Alison: "We are deeply touched and appreciative of Matthew Weiss' splendid documentary, 'One Red Bandanna' that captures so much detail of Welles and his final hour. Welles' legacy of courage, valor and care for others before himself will live on to inspire many of all ages because of this fine, detailed work."
Go to www.maninredbandana.com/ for more information.
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