On Sept. 11, 2001, 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 him to keep his people at their desks. Rescorla 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!”

Rick Rescorla ordered an immediate evacuation, directing more than 2,700 people to safety 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 Lieutenant General 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 Islamic terrorists tried to bring down the Twin Towers with a truck bomb in the 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 groused and complained about being yanked away from their million dollar deals to trudge down forty 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 2700 employees and hundreds of visitors headed down the stairwells before United Airlines Flight 175 hit Tower Two at 9:02 a.m. Nearly 3,000 people died in those two buildings, but only SIX employees of Morgan Stanley, including Rescorla, were among the dead.

In his biography of Rescorla, “Heart of a Soldier,” author James Stewart said Rick loved his adopted county. As thousands marched down to safety, he sang “God Bless America” over a bullhorn and encouraged everyone to “Stay calm, watch your partner.” The last voice many heard as they descended from Tower Two was Rick 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 replied. In his last call to his wife Susan, Rick 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.” Rick was last seen heading back up to rescue stragglers. His remains have never been recovered.

Despite many petitions, no president or congress ever paid formal tribute to Rick’s heroism until Nov. 7, 2019, when President Donald Trump presented the Presidential Citizen’s Medal to Susan Rescorla at the White House on Rick’s behalf.

President Trump said, “We can never erase the horrors of that day, we can never replace the lives that were lost. But on behalf of our entire nation, I pledge that we will forever and always remember this incredible American hero.”

20 years later let us recall Rick’s final moments in the blistering heat of that stairwell, suit jacket still on, bull horn in hand, calmly telling the multitude he saved, “Today is a day to be proud to be an American.” And always remember how Rick Rescorla, like the Good Shepherd tending his lost sheep, ascended to Eternity.

Mike Giorgino is a retired Navy Surface Warfare Commander and a Gulf War veteran. He practices law in Coronado, California.  He may be contacted at mgiorgino@aol.com.

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