Rick Rescorla: The Cornish Hero of 9/11

A photo of the ruins of the World Train Centre and Rick Rescorla's grave
Left: Ruins of the World Trade Center by Jim Watson. Right: A photo of Rick Rescorla's memorial by Ben Darlow | Wikimedia | CC BY-SA 3.0

The world changed that fateful day in September 2001. The terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers set America and the world on a different path, violently knocking the future into a new destiny. Some thirty years earlier another event had defined an era, shaped a generation and shifted the course of history. That event was the Vietnam War.

One man lived to witness both in his lifetime, not passively from the sidelines though, nor from the stands but live from the front stage, actively breathing, smelling and tasting the events as they unfolded around him. That man was Rick Rescorla; American made but British born.

Rick would be credited with saving nearly 2,700 lives on September 11, 2001. But before we get to his inspirational exploits on the day that would change the world, let's take a look back at his humble beginnings and discover a life filled with heroic deeds.

It all began in a small port town called Hayle in west Cornwall on May 27, 1939. Born to a single mother, Rick was raised by his grandparents. During WW2, Hayle was the HQ for a U.S. infantry division. The American soldiers fascinated the young Rick, who began to idolise them; a career in the military was on the horizon.

At 16, he joined the British Army serving as a paratrooper before joining an intelligence unit in Cyprus. He then went to Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) to serve as a police inspector as part of the British colonial forces stationed there. After a few years there he returned to London joining the Metropolitan Police, however, he couldn’t settle down. According to long-time friend Daniel J. Hill, who met Rick whilst in Northern Rhodesia, Rick was looking for a fight. ‘He was looking for bang-bang shoot-'em-up’.

If that's what Rick was after, Hill had just the suggestion…go to America and enlist. Rick did just that and so did Hill. He joined the U.S. Army in 1963, undertaking basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey. It was clear from the off that Rick was a natural-born leader so it came as a surprise to no one when he was assigned to lead a platoon in 1965.­­

The platoon was in the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Cavalry Regiment. The famed regiment was once under the command of General Custer, who led the unit during his infamous last stand at the Battle of Little Bighorn. Where Custer rode into battle on horseback, Rick and his men would ride with the 7th Cavalry on helicopters, as the division made up a new ‘air mobile’ strategy specifically designed for combat in Southeast Asia.

Aboard a Bell UH-1 Iroquois (aka ‘Huey’) helicopter, Rick’s platoon flew onto the field of battle in Vietnam in 1965, fighting at the Battle of Ia Drang, the first major confrontation between U.S. and North Vietnamese forces. The fight took place in the Ia Drang Valley, which later became known as the ‘Valley of Death’. Amongst the tall elephant grass and between the rising termite mounts, the opposing forces sized each other up. For three days the battle raged and for three days Rick calmly and courageously led his unit. At one point, he was ordered to hold a perimeter next to a mountain ridge. As his men lay anxiously waiting in their foxholes, Rick walked calmly up and down the lines, reassuring them and singing old Cornish folk songs.

‘We were all sitting in our holes with our knees knocking, we have dead guys all around us, and here comes Rick singing Cornish songs,’ said Sam Fantino, Rick’s radio operator. ‘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, checking to see if you have your magazines, and standing up like he is going on a Sunday afternoon's walk, what do you have to worry about?”’

The men nicknamed Rick ‘Hard Core’, a fitting tribute to a man with such an unflappable demeanour when faced with imminent danger. General Harold G. Moore, who led the American forces during Ia Drang, said Rick was 'the best platoon leader I ever saw'. Moore documented the battle in the critically acclaimed book We Were Soldiers Once…And Young that was also turned into a movie of the same name starring Mel Gibson. The book’s cover had a picture of a young soldier holding his rifle, that soldier was Rick.

For his exploits in Vietnam, Rick was awarded multiple medals including the Purple Heart. After returning to the States, Rick applied for American citizenship and began a new chapter of his life, marrying in 1972 and having two children.

In the years that followed, Rick undertook a law degree and taught criminal justice at the University of South Carolina. He then shifted into corporate security, a career path that led him to the World Trade Center in the mid-80s. He joined stock brokerage firm Dean Witter Reynolds, which would later merge with Morgan Stanley in the late 90s. The company occupied multiple floors in the South Tower and it was Rick's job to keep its employees safe; a job that Rick conducted with a military mindset.

Rick invited his old friend Daniel Hill, who was trained in counterterrorism to come and inspect the World Trade Center for weaknesses. He spotted the basement parking garage to be a particularly exposed part. Rick submitted his findings to higher authorities; his report was largely ignored. In 1993, a truck bomb was driven into the basement of the North Tower. It exploded and killed six people.

After that, people started listening to Rick who implemented strict emergency evacuation training programmes every few months for all Morgan Stanley staff. His drills ensured that everyone knew how to safely, calmly and quickly evacuate the building if they ever needed to.

Rick’s foresight was remarkable. He predicted any future attack on the Trade Center would likely come from the air. At 8.46 am on 11 September 2001, he would be proved right.

That morning Rick was not meant to be in the office, he was meant to be on holiday. He sacrificed his time away so that another colleague could have theirs. When the first plane hit the North Tower, Rick saw the events unfold from his office on the 44th floor of the South Tower. Announcements soon came over the building tannoy system, urging people to stay put. Rick knew this was the wrong call.

Picking up his megaphone, Rick ordered the near 3,000 Morgan Stanley workers to begin implementing the evacuation plan he’d taught them. They all knew what to do. He helped people down the stairwell, using the megaphone to not only direct them but also calm their nerves after the South Tower was shaken from the second plane strike. Rick began belting out Cornish and Welsh songs, just like he’d done on the killing fields of Ia Drang, morale was boosted in all those who heard his voice.

At some point during the evacuation, he managed a phone call to his second wife. ‘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.’

When everyone was out, somebody said to him that his work was done and that he should leave too. He replied, 'You hear those screams? There's more people up there. I have to help get them out.’ Displaying the same heroism he once did in Vietnam, Rick flew back up the stairwell and was last seen on the 10th floor shortly before the South Tower collapsed. His body was never found.

Out of the 2,700 Morgan Stanley employees, all but six made it out alive. Rick is credited with saving the lives of thousands of people that fateful day.

Although he lived most of his life in America, Rick frequently went back to visit family in Cornwall, a place he held dear in his heart. In turn, that part of the UK treated him as one of their own and in 2019, a new train was named after Rick at a ceremony near Penzance.

A statue of the hero also resides at the National Infantry Museum in Georgia and in 2019, Donald Trump posthumously awarded Rick the Presidential Citizens Medal, the second-highest civilian award