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"STOP CRYING": The British-American hero at the World Trade Center on 9-11

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The World Trade Center Towers in New York City in 2001, days before they were attacked.

RICK RESCORLA GREW UP IN HAYLE, in Cornwall, close to the sea where legend said waves had flipped the boy hero Arthur into Merlin’s sea cave. Rick’s family was poor, and like the boy who became a king, Rick did not know his father. Every Saturday he went to his own magic ‘cave’ to see movies, watching American cowboy epics and Hollywood musicals, and singing British and American songs.

When he was 16 Rick joined the British Army, found fathers and brothers, and was introduced to the world. Trained and physically toughened, the 6-foot, 1-inch Rescorla combatted Communism, a form of slavery that he saw up close and learned to loathe, and found time to read Kipling, Shakespeare, and history.

After his service ended, he travelled to America. Still young and idealistic, he enlisted to fight Communism in Vietnam. During the battle in the Ia Drang Valley, an ambushed battalion radioed his company to relieve them. On one of only two helicopters to make it through enemy fire, he was descending when the pilot was wounded, and started to lift up. Rescorla and his men jumped the remaining ten feet in a hail of bullets, and reached the besieged camp.

A platoon leader recalled, “Rick gave us the courage to face the coming dawn.” Repeatedly beating back waves of assault, they fought their way out, but not before Rescorla, in the battle's last mission, took a patrol through the battlefield to sweep for American dead and wounded, and bring them home.

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Rick Rescorla in Vietnam, alert after 48 hours of action.
Photo: Peter Arnett

Years later, a U.S. citizen and the father of a son and daughter, he had a master's degree in literature and a degree in law, and he was in love and married to Susan, his second wife. He kept his Silver Star, Bronze Star with oak-leaf cluster, Purple Heart, and Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry in a box in the closet, and told Susan when she found them that he did not want them displayed. He had no interest in the book and movie which featured him.

He had held dying men in his arms. "The real heroes are dead," he said.

Rick was a vice-president in charge of security at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter. His office in New York was on the forty-fourth floor of the World Trade Center’s south tower.

Convinced after the 1993 WTC bombing that radical Islamists would attempt to destroy the World Trade Center with planes, Rick urged Morgan Stanley to move. The lease had not yet expired. Morgan Stanley decided to stay.

Instilled with the philosophy that “proper prior planning and preparation prevent piss-poor performance,” Rick implemented an evacuation plan for Morgan Stanley’s 22 floors. He drilled employees on how to leave the south tower by the emergency staircases. Those on the top floor would descend first; those on the lower floors would fall in behind them, going down in pairs to help each other.

Meanwhile the treatments for Rick’s prostate cancer had made him heavier and weaker, but he was having the time of his life with Susan. They were dancing, singing, visiting nature reserves, returning to visit his old hometown in Cornwall, and meditating together. He was happy, and his cancer had gone into remission.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, Rick dressed as usual in a dark, pinstriped suit, grabbed Susan for a few dance steps, telling her, "I love you so," and took the train into New York.

At 8:15, Rick was at his desk in the south tower, and he and Susan spoke by phone for a few minutes, as they always did, and laughed about his morning dance routine. At 8:45 AM the first plane crashed into the north tower.

Rick took swift action. The south tower had not been hit, but he gave orders to evacuate over the intercom, despite port authorities who told him to stay put, telling them, "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 the fuck out of here." Then he called his Army buddy, Dan Hill, who had helped him to investigate the 1993 WTC bombing.

“Are you watching TV?” Rick asked. “What do you think?”

“It could have been an accident, but I can’t see a commercial airliner getting that far off,” Hill answered.

Rick put down the phone, and Hill could hear him issuing commands. He sounded calm and collected, never raising his voice.

Rick came back on, and asked Hill to come to New York. “Pack a bag,” he said, before he signed off.

At 9:03 AM, the second plane plunged into the south tower. Susan, watching TV, frantically phoned her husband’s office. No one answered.

About fifteen minutes later, the phone rang. When Susan heard Rick’s voice she burst into tears.

“Stop crying,” Rick said gently. “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.”

The rest of Rick Rescorla’s morning is shrouded in darkness, fire, implacable courage, and song. Fires raged. Windows shattered. Trapped men and women jumped from the north tower. Inside the south tower, Rescorla’s men and women were moving in pairs down the dark emergency staircases as Rick urged them on with a bullhorn. Through heat and smoke, claustrophobia and fear, Rick sang “God Bless America” in a booming voice, and belted out Cornish songs:

Men of Cornwall stand ye steady;

It cannot be ever said ye

for the battle were not ready;

Stand and never yield!

Twenty-six hundred men and women in his company walked out of death and desolation and into the rest of their lives that morning. When Rick saw they were safe, he called Morgan Stanley to report, and said he was going back up into the tower.

One of the last men to evacuate saw him on the 10th floor, ten minutes before the south tower fell, and urged him to leave. Rick said, “I’ll go as soon as I make sure everyone else is out,” and kept on climbing the stairs up into the tower. His mission was to complete the mission: to make sure everyone was safe. All his life, he had prepared for this hour.

At home, Susan, watching the news, cried out. It was 9:50 AM, and the south tower had just collapsed. Dan Hill saw the tower go, and knew a hero was dead.

There were many heroes who died that day.

Ave atque Vale.

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The 16 acres of the World Trade Center saw the total collapse of five buildings, including St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church; four structures partially collapsed; and substantial damage to six others. 2,823 people were confirmed dead. Less than half their bodies have been found.

Rick had asked Susan to strew his ashes in Hayle. There were no ashes to scatter. His memorial service was held in the nature sanctuary he loved, where hawks and eagles fly.

This post depends substantially and gratefully on a New Yorker article by James B. Stewart.

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