Julie and I visited the National September 11th Memorial and Museum on a recent trip to New York City. We can attest that “they got it right”. The museum powerfully recaptures all aspects of that terrible day and the great people who stepped up when it counted. The displays are so emotional that many New Yorkers told us they cannot bring themselves to go there.
That day in New York we lost 2,606 people including 343 firefighters, 72 law enforcement officers and 8 civilian EMTs.
To pay homage to all of these heroes, I am focusing this month on one individual, Rick Rescorla, who was responsible for saving 3,700 people that day but perished in the collapse of the South Tower.
Rick’s story attracted the attention of Pulitzer Prize author James B. Stewart who has written a superb book about his life: “Heart of a Soldier” (Simon and Schuster, 2002). As Stewart so skillfully illustrated, everything in Rick’s remarkable life prepared him for one last act of selflessness that would transcend all that came before. Rick embodied all of the best – bravery and leadership, a caring soul, an unparalleled visionary. This is an overview of his story: to do justice to the full measure of his life you would have to read the book.
Rick was born in England and served as a paratrooper in the British Army before becoming a paramilitary policeman in Northern Rhodesia in the early 1960s. There he met Dan Hill, an American, who would become his best friend for life. Together, they lived an adventure worthy of Kipling or Conrad.
Later, at Hill’s urging, Rescorla became an American citizen and then joined the US Army, attending Office Candidate School at Ft. Benning in 1964. In 1965, he was sent to Vietnam as part of the First Cavalry Division and saw extensive combat in the Central Highlands. His company commander called him: “the best platoon leader I ever saw.” For his bravery, Rick received a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. He was also indicted into the Infantry Officer Hall of Fame at Ft. Benning.
After the war, Rick earned a college degree, master’s degree and law degree and taught at the University of South Carolina.
In the 1980’s, Rick moved to New York City to become head of security
at Dean Witter’s headquarters in the World Trade Center. After Pan Am
103, Rick became concerned that the World Trade Center would become a
terrorist target and asked his friend Dan Hill to work with him on a
security assessment. They concluded that the greatest threat was
probably a truck bomb if detonated in the garage near support columns
and prepared a report to the New York Port Authority, owner of the World
Trade Center. Unfortunately, their warnings for additional security
Three years later on February 26, 1993, Islamic terrorists used a truck bomb in the garage of the North Tower and tried but narrowly failed to collapse the North Tower into the South Tower. Over 1,000 people were injured, most during the evacuation that followed the blast. All power was cut off, hundreds of people were stranded in elevators and smoke filled the stairwells of both towers. Rick stayed in the smoldering building to assist firefighters in helping those trapped and injured.
After Dean Witter merged with Morgan Stanley in 1997, the company eventually occupied twenty-two floors of the South Tower with 2,700 employees and 1,000 more in a nearby building (WTC5). Rescorla was concerned that the terrorists would try again; disheartened by the Port Authority’s failure to follow his earlier recommendations and concerned that the next time they would shift tactics to crash airplanes into the buildings  , he urged Morgan Stanley to move out of the buildings but was rebuffed for financial reasons because their lease ran to 2006.
Undaunted, Rescorla shifted gears and convinced senior management that their best available option was to train all employees to respond quickly to an emergency. He began a regular program of surprise fire drills in which he trained the employees to use the stairwells. He timed the employees with a stopwatch and lectured them on fire emergency basics. His strict approach to these drills irritated some executives of the company but he succeeded in accomplishing his goal.
On 9/11, Rick was 62 years old, 30 years removed from Vietnam, a prophet who for the most part had been ignored, sitting at his desk on the 44th Floor of the South Tower when American Airlines Flight 11 flew into the North Tower.
The Port Authority made an announcement over the P.A. system urging people in the South Tower to stay at their desks. Rick ignored the announcement, grabbed his bullhorn and walkie talkie and began systematically ordering Morgan Stanley employees to evacuate, including the 1,000 employees at WTC5.  He sang songs to calm people’s nerves and kept them moving down the stairs after United Flight 175 slammed into the South Tower. In all, about 3,700 people from Morgan Stanley made it out safely (only six perished). At that point, Rick and his dedicated deputies Jorge Velazquez, Wesley Mercer and Godwin Forde started back up the stairs to help others. He and his loyal band of brothers were last seen heading upward at the 10th Floor, shortly before the South Tower collapsed. It was his final act of selflessness among so many.
In researching this story, I found the following anonymous posting from a New Yorker about Rick that also speaks eloquently to his humanity:
“In 1992, the tire of my VW Bug exploded and I was stranded on the side of the road during rush hour. Horns honking but no one willing to help an old man and then out of nowhere came Rick with a big smile, changed my tire and befriended me. Then there were the visits to my home, offers to do laundry, fix my roof …. and then helping me through the loss of my wife, crying with me, laughing and looking through old photographs … he became like a second child to me.”
Memorials and tributes to Rick are almost too overwhelming to list, but here are some of the most meaningful to me:
- In 2011, the Department of Homeland Security created the Rick Rescorla National Award for Resilience to “recognize outstanding individuals and organizations who exemplify the qualities and achievements of Rick Rescorla, emphasizing leadership in effective preparation, response and recovery in the face of disaster.” If you want to see Rick’s legacy, go to the Homeland Security website and read about those who have received the award.
- James B. Stewart’s book about Rick became a best-seller and was voted by Time Magazine as the best non-fiction book of 2002.
- In 2005, the History Channel did a documentary on Rick: The Man Who Predicted 9/11.
- The Rick Rescorla Memorial website (www.rickrescorla.com) has been visited by over a million people.
- In 2009, Rick was awarded the “Above and Beyond Citizen Medal”, the most prestigious civilian award in America from the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.
If you read Stewart’s book about Rick, you will learn that there were parts of his life that didn’t work out as well as he had hoped. But whenever the call came in his life to step up, he was ready and instinctively knew what to do. His nobility, his intrinsic heroism, his sense of duty, his loyalty to those who relied upon him and his determined leadership are a role model for us all.
 Rick’s visionary thinking (including many details omitted in this story but discussed in detail in Stewart’s book) led former Director of Central Intelligence Jim Woolsey to tell Rick’s wife Susan after 9/11 that he wished Rick had been head of Counterintelligence at the agency.
: Rick also called his wife Susan and his friend Dan Hill (by then living in St. Augustine, Florida) – most likely because he did not expect to live out the day, although he told them not to worry about him.