On this day in 2001, terrorists attack our country. Many heroes emerged that day, including Retired Army Reserve Col. Cyril Richard “Rick” Rescorla. The Army veteran put his life on the line, even as he saved nearly 2,700 people from the collapsing World Trade Center towers.
His selfless action prompted the Congressional Medal of Honor Society to posthumously award Rescorla with a Citizen Honors Award.
Rescorla had been director of security at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, the World Trade Center’s biggest tenant, for years. He’d long felt that the towers were a potential terrorist target, but he didn’t believe that New York’s Port Authority could be trusted to protect the buildings, especially after a bombing in 1993.
He got to work teaching his people to evacuate their 22 floors of office space efficiently. Morgan Stanley employees would need to look out for themselves.
“Rick became so vigilant making sure we all knew how to get out of the building,” employee Patti Monachino explained. “We had fire drills twice a month. We had to do the full walking down the steps. At that time, I could go downstairs with my eyes closed and know where I was going.”
These drills were run like the Vietnam vet that Rescorla was: He didn’t give notice that an emergency evacuation drill was coming. After all, a real emergency would come without notice. Likewise, employees weren’t allowed to opt out, no matter how important their work. Morgan Stanley guests were also expected to participate. Rescorla timed the drills with a stopwatch.
These drills went on for 8 years. “He would say that, in times of crisis, men don’t rise to the occasion, they default to their training,” his friend Fred McBee explained.
That training proved invaluable on the morning of September 11, 2001, when terrorists hijacked passenger planes and flew them into the World Trade Center towers. The first plane hit the North Tower at 8:46 a.m., but the Port Authority was slow to understand the danger, claiming that the South Tower did not need to evacuate.
Rescorla knew better. Without hesitation, he ordered his people out.
“I knew where to go, just by rote,” Monachino said. “I went straight to the exit.”
Morgan Stanley employees and guests were already partway down the stairs when a second plane hit the South Tower at 9:02 a.m.
“When the impact happened, I was blown out of my shoes,” employee Kathy Comerford said, “and I hit the marble wall . . . . I was within inches of Rick, he was on that bullhorn, in the pitch black, reassuring people . . . .” Another employee, Camille Prelli agreed, remembering that Rescorla “was saying, ‘We’re good Americans, walk down slowly, be good Americans.’”
Other employees remember him singing “God Bless America” into his bullhorn, working to keep everyone calm.
He made a quick phone call to his wife. She’d been watching events unfold on TV. “Stop crying,” he told her. “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.”
In the end, Rescorla got 2,687 people safely out of the tower. He was last seen heading back upstairs, ignoring pleas to stay out of the building. “I will as soon as I make sure everyone else is out,” he shrugged.
The South Tower collapsed soon afterwards. His remains were never identified.
“Everyone who knew him knew he’d gone back up,” McBee said. “You know, you leave no man behind.” Another friend, Dan Hill, agreed: “He could not have lived with himself unless he was the last man out of that building, unless he was absolutely convinced that everybody else was dead, and there was nobody else he could save.”
Amanda Ripley, The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes—and Why (2009)
Citizen Honors—Rick Rescorla, 2009 Valor Honoree (Medal of Honor society video)
Citizen Service Above Self Award (Rick Rescorla; 2009 awardee)
Congressional Medal of Honor Society: Citizen Honors (Congressional Medal of Honor website)
Frank Misurelli, Retired Col. 'Rick' Rescorla gave his life saving others on 9/11 (U.S. Army website; September 17, 2015)
James B. Stewart, Heart of a Soldier (2003)
James B. Stewart, The Real Heroes Are Dead: A love story (New Yorker; February 3, 2002)
Michael Giorgino, 20 Years Later: Remembering Rick Rescorla - America’s Good Shepherd On 9/11 (Coronado Eagle & Journal; Sep 9, 2021)
Seth Schiesel & Riva D. Atlas, By-the-Numbers Operation at Morgan Stanley Finds Its Human Side (N.Y. Times; Sept. 16, 2001)