Editor's note: This commentary originally appeared on our pages in 2011. We reprint it today with minor modifications.
Twelve years ago on 9/11, Rick Rescorla was on duty on the 44th floor of the World Trade Center, tower two. He was vice president for corporate security at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co., and a jumbo jet had just plowed into the other tower.
As smoke rose from tower one, someone from the Port Authority ordered Rescorla to keep his people at their desks. He replied, “Piss off. Everything above where that plane hit is going to collapse, and it's going to take the whole building with it. I'm getting my people out of here!”
Rescorla ordered an immediate evacuation, saving more than 2,700 people before the second plane plowed into tower two.
Rick Rescorla was born in Cornwall, England, in 1939. After service in the British armed forces, he earned a commission as an officer in the U.S. Army. Rescorla volunteered to fight in Vietnam. He fought with the 7th Cavalry Regiment (Airmobile) in the 1965 Battle of Ia Drang. He was the gritty soldier pictured on the cover of “We Were Soldiers Once ... And Young.” Co-author Lt. Gen. Harold Moore described him as “the best platoon leader I ever saw.” Rescorla’s men called him “Hard Core” for his extraordinary courage in battle.
The History Channel has a chilling documentary about Rescorla called “The Man Who Predicted 9/11.” It tells how in 1992, Rescorla warned the Port Authority about the possibility of a truck bomb attack in the unguarded basement of the World Trade Center. He was ignored. When terrorists tried to bring down the Twin Towers with a truck bomb in 1993, Rescorla took charge of the evacuation and was the last man out.
Rescorla then warned Morgan Stanley that the terrorists would return to finish the job — next time with aircraft. He said they should move their corporate headquarters to a safer location in New Jersey. The company’s lease in Manhattan did not end until 2006, and they failed to heed his warning.
Rescorla did the next best thing: He prepared for another attack. At his insistence, all employees, including senior executives, participated in full-blown, no-notice emergency evacuation drills every three months. High-powered stock brokers complained about being yanked away from their million-dollar deals to trudge down 40 stories. But it all paid off on 9/11.
At 8:46 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, American Airlines Flight 11 struck tower one. Rescorla sprang into action and had most of Morgan Stanley’s 2,700 employees and hundreds of visitors safely out of the building before United Airlines Flight 175 hit tower two at 9:02 a.m.
Rescorla loved his adopted county. As thousands marched down to safety, he sang “God Bless America” over a bullhorn and encouraged everyone to “be proud to be an American.” The last voice many heard as they descended from tower two was Rescorla singing his version of the song from the movie “Zulu”:
“Men of Cornwall stand ye steady;
It cannot be ever said ye
for the battle were not ready;
Stand and never yield!”
A Morgan Stanley director told Rescorla he had to get out, too.
“As soon as I make sure everyone else is out,” Rescorla said.
In his last call to his wife, Susan, Rescorla said, "Stop crying, I have to get these people out safely. If something should happen to me, I want you to know I've never been happier. You made my life."
Rescorla was last seen heading back up to rescue stragglers. His remains have never been recovered.
In the years since 9/11, neither Congress nor any president has ever paid formal tribute to Rescorla's heroism. So in 2009, America’s Medal of Honor holders awarded Rescorla their Above & Beyond Citizen Medal. In their words, “Inside of us all, a hero lies. For some, it rises up and shows itself through an extraordinary act of courage and selflessness. On the battlefields of their everyday lives, these incredible individuals are moved to act. And so they go willingly, selflessly, courageously — above and beyond.”
I first read the amazing story of Rick Rescorla in “Heart of a Soldier” by James B. Stewart (Simon & Schuster, 2002). The San Francisco Opera transformed Stewart’s book into an opera, which premiered on Sept. 10, 2011, the eve of the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Imagine the pride that Susan Rescorla will experience as the music rises higher, ever higher with each crescendo, soaring up to the ultimate triumph of love, courage and devotion that Rick Rescorla achieved in his life on 9/11.
Mike Giorgino is a retired Navy commander and a Gulf War veteran. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.