A Day of Heroes
It was an absolutely beautiful late summer morning across the northeast United States. A day of sunny, clear skies and comfortable temperatures with people routinely going about their daily business. In airports all along the east coast, passengers and crews were boarding aircraft for destination all over the world. Among them were four heading to California airports; three on their way to Los Angeles International Airport and a fourth destined for San Francisco International Airport. It was Tuesday, September 11, 2001, two weeks before the end of summer and the beginning of fall.
For 213 passengers and 34 crew members aboard the four aircraft, everything seemed routine with none suspecting what was about to happen. Nor were they aware that the other 19 passengers scattered among the four aircraft were radicalized Islamic terrorists from Saudi Arabia and several other Arab nations determined on punishing America for it’s support of Israel and its continued military presence in the Middle East.
American Airlines Flight 11 departed Boston’s Logan Airport at 7:59 A.M. en route to Los Angeles with a crew of eleven and 81 passengers, including five terrorists. Around thirty minutes into the flight, the five hijackers breached the cockpit, taking control of the plane and by 8:45 A.M., crashed it into the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. The 20,000 gallons of jet fuel reacted like a bomb, exploding on impact, leaving a gaping, burning hole near the 80th floor of the 110-story skyscraper, instantly killing hundreds of people and trapping hundreds more in higher floors.
As the evacuation of the tower got underway, local television crews raced to the scene and began broadcasting live images of what they thought was an accident of unknown origin. At ground level and in other Lower Manhattan buildings, people stopped what they had been doing and watched in horror, speculating among themselves on what had happened. Eighteen minutes later, United Airlines Flight 175, also out of Boston, with a crew of nine and 56 passengers, including five hijackers, appeared out of the sky, turned sharply and directly toward the World Trade Center and tore into the south tower near the 60th floor, exploding on impact. It was 9:03 A.M. This was the only impact seen live on television around the world as it happened.
Within two hours, the Twin Towers collapsed into a massive heap of twisted steel, broken glass, fiberglass, asbestos, and pulverized cement, creating thick dust over the entire area, including ten surrounding buildings. That cancer causing dust would later prove to be fatal to many of those who worked, lived, or studied in Lower Manhattan at the time of the attack from “exposure to toxins at “Ground Zero.” Many first responders are among them.
A third aircraft, American Airlines Flight 77, departed Washington Dulles International Airport at 8:20 A.M. en route to Los Angeles with a crew of six and 58 passengers, including five hijackers. Less than 35 minutes into the flight, the terrorists stormed the cockpit. Panicked passengers secretly made phone calls to loved ones informing them of their situation. At 9:37 A.M., the hijackers crashed the aircraft into the western side of the Pentagon. News sources began reporting on the incident within minutes. The impact severely damaged an area of the Pentagon and by 10:10 A.M.., a portion of the Pentagon collapsed, smothered in fire. Firefighters spent days trying to fully extinguish the blaze. Because the Pentagon was headquarters for the United States Department of Defense, it symbolized U.S. military power. A total of 125 military personnel and civilians were killed as well as the 64 people on the plane.
The fourth California-bound plane, United Flight 93, with 37 passengers, including four terrorists, and a crew of seven, was seized about 45 minutes after leaving New Jersey’s Newark International Airport. Because the plane had been delayed in taking off, passengers on board learned of events in New York and Washington via cell phone. Knowing they too were on a doomed plane, a group of brave passengers and flight attendants decided to fight back against their hijackers, informing several people on the ground of their plans. Many passengers called their loved ones saying their final goodbyes if the attempt to wrestle back the control of the plane was not successful. During the struggle, the plane flipped over and sped toward the ground at upwards of 500 miles per hour, crashing in a rural field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, at 10:03 A.M. All 45 people aboard were killed. Its intended target is not known, but theories include the White House, the U.S. Capitol, or one of several nuclear power plants along the eastern seaboard.
On a day of unthinkable horror and needless deaths, there was also countless acts of heroism shown by thousands of firefighters, police, paramedics, co-workers and fellow citizen doing everything possible to save lives and give aid and comfort to the survivors. Among them was Rick Rescorla, a man some say predicted the attack.
Cyril Richard “Rick” Rescorla was born in Cornwall, on the southwest tip of England, in 1939. From an early age it was obvious Rick was a natural athlete who liked physical challenges. He was an avid boxer, rugby star and set a high school record in the shot put. With little interest in book-learning, his need for jeopardy and adventure got the best of him and in 1957, at the age of 16, he quit school and enlisted in the British Army.
He trained as a paratrooper with The Parachute Regiment and served in military intelligence in Cyprus. At the time, the EOKA-Greek Cypriot nationalist guerrilla organization was actively fighting an insurgency in hopes of ending British rule in Cyprus. Active from 1957 to 1960, the group sabotaged British military installations, ambushed military convoys and patrols, and assassinating British soldiers and local informers.
With the end of that insurgency, he sought out a more adventurous military life, so he then served as a paramilitary police inspector in the Northern Rhodesia Police (now the Zambia Police Service) from 1960 to 1963. Backing South African forces against Communists anti-British forces often lead to brutal, deadly confrontations – an experience that made him a fierce anti-Communist. It was in Rhodesia that he met and created a lifetime friendship with American soldier Daniel J. Hill, who inspired Rescorla to later join the U.S. Army and fight in Vietnam where he could again battle the communists.
On returning to London and civilian life, he joined the Metropolitan Police Service. His tenure at the Met was short-lived and he soon resigned and moved to the United States. Shortly after arriving, he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1963. After basic training, he attended Officer Candidate School and airborne training at Fort Benning. Upon graduating, Rescorla was assigned as a platoon leader to Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) and experienced one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War – the Battle of Ia Drang.
The battle took place from November 14 to November 18, 1965 in the Ia Drang Valley of the Central Highlands. It was the first major combat between U.S. and North Vietnamese forces. On one side was 1,000 troopers of the U.S. Army 1st Cavalry Division’s 1st and 2nd Battalions, 7th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade and the 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade. Facing them was the 2,000 man B3 Field Front Command made up of five regiments from the People’s Army of Vietnam’s 304th Division and Viet Cong guerrillas from the H15 NFL Battalion.
For several days there was fierce, deadly fighting at LZ X-Ray in which the men of the 1st Cavalry suffered many dead and wounded. While there were times it seemed possible the enemy would overrun the U.S. forces, it did not happen. It was the strong leadership, well-rehearsed tactics and heroic efforts on the part of the troopers that prevented that from happening. Equally – if not more importantly – was the heavy artillery and air support that kept the enemy off balance. B-52 bombing around the area was another major deterrent.
As the battle subsided, portions of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry, were ordered to move cross-country to LZ Albany, where it was to be picked up by helicopter and moved to a new location. The U.S. unit was moving through the jungle in a long column when the North Vietnamese sprang a massive ambush along the length of the column from all sides. The cavalrymen returned fire, but the Communists were fighting from prepared fighting positions and many of the American leaders had fallen in the initial stages of the ambush.
Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry, commanded by Capt. Myron Diduryk, was still at LZ X-Ray when they received orders to relief the Battalion. Rescorla, the sole remaining platoon leader in Bravo Company, led the reinforcements into the Albany perimeter, which was expanded to provide better security. As the wounded at Albany were evacuated that evening, the helicopters received intense ground fire as they landed and took off. The Americans at Albany then settled down for the night waiting for the North Vietnamese to attack, but illumination flares provided by Air Force aircraft made the enemy cautious. By morning, they had withdrawn.
The next day, Friday, November 18, as dawn rose over the battlefield, the Americans began to police up their dead. This task took the better part of the day and the next, as American and NorthVietnamese dead were scattered all over the field of battle. Rescorla described the scene as, “a long, bloody traffic accident in the jungle.” policing the battlefield, Rescorla recovered a large, battered, old French army bugle from a dying NVA soldier.
Both sides suffered heavy casualties; U.S. losses were 237 killed, 258 wounded and four missing. It was estimated that the enemy lost about 1,500 killed. Lt. Col. Harold Moore, commander of 1/7, along with Journalist Joseph Galloway, co-authored the book “We Were Soldiers Once – and Young.” Moore called Rescorla “the best platoon leader I ever saw.” The photo of the solider on the front cover of the book is Rick Rescorla.
After service in Vietnam, Rescorla returned to the U.S., left the Army. The adventurous boy who did not like school then did a complete 360 turnaround and spend years in college. Using his military benefits, he studied creative writing at the University of Oklahoma, eventually earning a Bachelor of Arts degree, a Master of Arts degree in English, and a law degree from the Oklahoma City University School of Law. He then packed up his bags, moved to South Carolina, and began teaching criminal justice at the University of South Carolina for three years and published a textbook on the subject.
Rescorla left teaching for higher-paying jobs in corporate security, joining Dean Witter Reynolds at their offices at the World Trade Center in New York City.
Following the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, he became increasingly concerned about the potential for a terrorist attack against the World Trade Center. In 1990, he contact his counterterrorism-trained friend from Rhodesia, Daniel Hill, requesting him to visit the World Trade Center to provide an assessment of the building’s vulnerabilities.
After Hill arrived to the World Trade Center, Rescorla asked him how he would attack the building if he were a terrorist. Hill requested to see the basement, and after the two walked down to the basement parking garage without being stopped by any visible security, Hill pointed to an easily accessible load-bearing column, and said, “This is a soft touch. I’d drive a truck full of explosives in here, walk out, and light it off.” Rescorla reported these findings to the New York Police Department and the New York Port and New Jersey Authority, who owns the site, but received no official response.
Rescorla and Hill decided on writing a detailed report to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, insisting on the need for more security in the parking garage. Their recommendations, which would have been expensive to implement, were ignored again.
Following the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing which killed six people and injured more than 1,000, Rescorla invited Hill back to New York, where he hired him as a security consultant in order to analyze the building’s security. Although no arrests had yet been made in the case, Rescorla suspected that the bomb had been planted by Muslims, probably Palestinians.
Hill let his beard grow and masqueraded as an anti-American Muslim, speaking fluent Arabic and frequented several mosques in New Jersey where he befriended other visitors to the mosques. He concluded that the attack was likely planned by a radical imam at a mosque in New York or New Jersey. Followers of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, a radical Muslim cleric based in Brooklyn, were subsequently convicted of the bombing.
The conclusions drawn by both Rescorla and Hill following their meticulous findings on the 1993 bombing, convinced them the World Trade Center was still a target for terrorists and predicted that the next terrorist attack could involve a plane crashing into one of the towers. So strong was his feelings, Rescorla recommended to his Morgan Stanley superiors the company leave their Manhattan office space and setup in New Jersey. However, this recommendation was not followed as the company’s lease at the World Trade Center did not terminate until 2006. At Rescorla’s insistence, all employees, including senior executives, then practiced emergency evacuations every three months.
After Dean Witter merged with Morgan Stanley in 1997, the company eventually occupied twenty-two floors in the South Tower, and several floors in a building nearby. Rescorla’s office was on the forty-fourth floor of the South Tower. Feeling that port authorities failed to act upon his 1990 warnings, he concluded that employees of Morgan Stanley, which was the largest tenant in the World Trade Center, could not rely on first responders in an emergency, and needed to empower themselves through surprise fire drills. He trained employees to meet in the hallway between stairwells and go down the stairs, two by two, to the 44th floor. As was to be expected, Rescorla’s strict approach to these drills put him into conflict with some high-powered executives who resented the interruption to their daily activities, but he nonetheless insisted that these rehearsals were necessary to train the employees in the event of an actual emergency. He timed employees with a stopwatch when they moved too slowly and lectured them on fire emergency basics.
At 8:46 A.M. on the morning of September 11, 2001, Rescorla heard the explosion when American Airlines Flight 11 struck World Trade Center’s North Tower. He ran to his office window on the 44th floor of the South Tower and saw the North Tower in flames; he knew then his prediction had come true. When the Port Authority announcement came over the P.A. system urging people to stay at their desks, Rescorla ignored the announcement, grabbed his bullhorn, walkie-talkie and cell phone, and began systematically ordering Morgan Stanley employees to evacuate, including the 1,000 employees in WTC 5. He directed people down a stairwell from the 44th floor, continuing to calm employees after the building lurched violently following the crash of United Airlines Flight 175 38 floors above him at 9:03 A.M. Even a group of 250 people visiting the offices for a stockbroker training class knew what to do because they had been shown the nearest stairway.
Rescorla had boosted morale among his men in Vietnam by singing Cornish songs from his youth, and now he did the same in the stairwell, singing “Men of Cornwall stop your dreaming, Can’t you see their spear points gleaming? See their warriors’ pennants streaming, to this battlefield. Men of Cornwall stand ye steady, It cannot be ever said ye for the battle were not ready. Stand and never yield!”
Between songs, Rescorla called his wife, telling her, “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.”
After successfully evacuating most of Morgan Stanley’s 2,687 employees, he went back into the building. When one of his colleagues told him he too had to evacuate the World Trade Center, Rescorla replied, “As soon as I make sure everyone else is out.” He was last seen on the 10th floor, heading upward, shortly before the South Tower collapsed at 9:59 A.M. His remains were never found. He was declared dead three weeks after the attacks
Rescorla was survived by his wife, Susan, his two children and his three stepdaughters by Susan. Rescorla had requested that he be cremated and have his ashes strewn in his birthplace, Haylee, Cornwall, England. Having revered the eagle as a symbol of both American freedom and Native American mysticism, he had also told Susan that when he died he wanted her to contribute money to an endowment for eagles. Photo of Susan at Rescorla’s memorial in Haylee, Cornwall England
Rescorla’s activities during the September 11 attacks were quickly brought to national attention by the news media, including a detailed account by Michael Greenwald in the October 28, 2001 issue of The Washington Post of Rescorla’s life and “epic death, one of those inspirational hero-tales that have sprouted like wildflowers from the Twin Towers rubble.” A memorial statue of Rescorla at Ft. Benning, Georgia, the Home of the Infantry was unveiled in 2006.
September 11, 2001. A day that we will never forget. A day that will be forever etched in our hearts and minds as a day that changed our country forever. A day that changed the way we view the world and how we go about our daily activities.