EDITOR’S NOTE: In remembrance of 9/11, this week’s Journalism Showcase focuses on a single topic, with a special Q&A with ESPN reporter Tom Rinaldi, whose book, “The Red Bandanna,” the story of Welles Crowther, went on sale this week. Rinaldi will also have the first TV interview with former Baylor coach Art Briles on Saturday’s College GameDay (9 a.m. ET, ESPN).
We know Welles Crowther, the focus of your book, was an unbelievable hero on September 11th but what was it about his character that inspired you to tell his whole story?
The story revolves around a question and the question is what would you do in a life or death situation? How would you react? I think it’s a question each of us in our own way, maybe just for a moment, has asked ourselves. How would I measure up? What would I do? Would I put someone before myself, someone I don’t know and whose name I don’t know at the risk of my own life? Really the book is an exploration of that answer. This young man’s answer, which is why even though it is centered in 9/11 the book offers a lesson, many lessons that go way beyond that day.
Welles was an accomplished man but in a way he was like the rest of us, but he did something that few of us would do. I think that’s what lies at the center. A common man who performed an uncommon and extraordinary act on an indelible day in the country’s history and not only that. He did it once and then went back up nearly 20 flights of stairs to lead a group to safety, carrying a woman on his back, and all he said was, ‘I’m going back up.’”
What was the biggest challenge for you in writing this book?
The biggest challenge was to expand the narrative beyond the television feature and render it in a completely different venue. I’m someone who writes for television with visuals and sounds as incredible tools. Here the visuals aren’t there, the sounds aren’t there, it’s just the words on the page. I found that very daunting and very challenging but ultimately deeply fulfilling.”
I found myself wanting not to be overwrought but trying to follow the ultimate and first commandment in writing, to be clear. That was always the first goal to be clear and to be accurate and then to tell the story in the way I would want to read it.
In what way is Welles different from other heroes we read about?
Hero is a term we use often in sport and I can understand why. We celebrate athletic achievements and accomplishments. It inspires us, but there is a different category of heroism and Welles is a classic embodiment of that highest category. Someone who would sacrifice his life for others. That’s what he did. Not a saint, not someone who was perfect, but someone who in the ultimate moment, performed the ultimate act and gave the ultimate sacrifice.
How was writing a book different than the television writing you are used to?
I love the writing I do for TV., it’s one of my favorite parts of my job and I have a lottery-winning job. This is a different kind of writing and it asks for a different set of muscles to be used. It was great to try my best to develop and use those muscles in the most effective way.
What type of reaction do you hope people will have after reading “The Red Bandanna”?
I hope that people will come away from the book having learned about an extraordinary choice but also ask themselves what they would do and what lessons are there from the choice he made. I also think that in a time of such division and discord his story represents a piece of common ground that we all can walk on. And I hope people keep a piece of that ground inside them.