Some stories need to be retold.
Nineteen years ago, he saved 2,687 lives. With a bullhorn and walkie-talkie. While singing Cornish battle songs and “God Bless America.”
Rick Rescorla learned those fight songs in his native Cornwall, England. At age 17, he enlisted in the British military to train as a paratrooper and in intelligence. His service with the Northern Rhodesia Police (modern Zambia), running barefoot like the local warriors, introduced him to his life-long friend, American soldier Daniel J. Hill.
He moved to New York in 1963 and joined the U.S. Army, became a citizen and attended officer training and airborne school at Fort Benning. Assigned as a platoon leader, he was deployed to Ia Drang, northern Vietnam in 1965. The soldiers called it “the Valley of Death.” His commander, Lt. Col. Hal Moore, documented the harrowing battle in his 1992 book “We Were Soldiers Once … and Young” (which was later adapted into Mel Gibson’s 2002 movie). The grizzly soldier on the book cover is Rick Rescorla.
His fellow soldiers called him the “Cornish Hawk” and “Hard Core” for his grit, humor and leadership. Lt. Gen. Moore described him as “the best combat platoon leader I ever served with.”
“We were all sitting in our [fox]holes with our knees knocking,” recounted Sam Fantino, Rescorla’s radio operator. “We had dead guys all around us, and here comes Rick singing Cornish songs. Pretty soon you are saying to yourself, 'If this guy can walk from hole to hole, checking to see if you have your grenades in the right place, walking around like … a Sunday afternoon’s walk — what do you have to worry about?'”
After active duty, Rescorla pursued his education, graduated from Oklahoma City University School of Law, and taught criminal justice at the University of South Carolina. But academia was just too boring for him.
In 1985, he joined the corporate security team for Dean Whitter securities firm at the World Trade Center. When Pan Am Flight 103 was bombed over Scotland, Rescorla asked his old American friend, Daniel Hill, who was trained in counterterrorism, to assess the security at the World Trade Center. Together they walked through the basement garage, with no security restrictions, to a load-bearing wall. “This is a soft touch,” said Hill. “I’d drive a truck full of explosives in here.” Rescorla wrote a report to the Port Authority, which owns the site, requesting more security. His letter was ignored. Three years later the WTC was bombed in that spot.
Concerned that the WTC was still a target for terrorism, he predicted that the next attack could involve a cargo plane crashing into a tower. Rescorla insisted on frequent evacuation drills. By then, Dean Witter had merged with Morgan Stanley and occupied 22 floors of the South Tower. Some executives resented his interruptions to the work flow, but now-chief security officer Rescorla persisted and timed the drills with his stopwatch.
I first heard about Rescorla from a friend who worked at Morgan Stanley at the time. At 8:45 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, after a plane crashed into Tower 1, a Port Authority announcement crackled over the PA system, instructing workers to remain at their desks. Rescorla announced he was overriding that order and to evacuate the building. Again, an announcement came from the Port Authority to stay in the building. Rescorla grabbed his bullhorn, announced that was “bull----” and again ordered all Morgan Stanley employees to evacuate immediately. In the stairwell of the 44th floor he began to sing through his bullhorn with that Brit brogue:
“Men of Cornwall, stop your dreaming, Can’t you see their spearheads gleaming? ...”
He stopped to make two phone calls. The first to his wife Susan: “I want to you know I’ve never been happier; you made my life.” The second to his lifelong friend Hill, asking him to come to New York to deal with the aftermath.
When a colleague urged him to evacuate, he replied, “As soon as I make sure everyone else is out.” He re-entered the tower and was last seen on the 10th floor going upward.
On Sept. 11, 2001, 420 first responders and 2,186 civilians died at the Twin Towers. All but 13 Morgan Stanley employees escaped the building. Rick Rescorla’s body was never found.
A life-size statue of his grizzled Vietnam book cover image graces the Walk of Honor at Fort Benning, emblazoned with the inscription: “In life and in death, Rescorla epitomized the soldier’s creed: ‘Leave No Man Behind.’”
Cyril Richard Rescorla: colonel, U.S. Army, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Division; Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Presidential Citizens Medal. An American Hero. Lest we forget.