FEATURED IN TRAINING
The 10-year mark is soon to be a memory. Clearly, the decade between this moment and 9/11 has been momentous. Looking back, we know many of the stories that came out of that September morning. The Twin Towers were some of the tallest and strongest buildings in the world, and yet they fell. Doing what was expected but not forced upon them, many cops and firefighters went into the two World Trade Center Towers and never came out. Likewise, there were civilians who, through their examples, rose to the level of heroes, giving us examples to remember.
An Adopted Son
Among these civilians was Rick Rescorla. A Brit transplanted by choice to America, his life could almost be characterized as a soldier of fortune. Born just before World War II as Cyril Richard Rescorla, he dropped his first name, became a paratrooper in the British Army and later served with the Metropolitan Police. Prior to the Vietnam War, he moved to the States seeking a new home. I’m not sure whether America adopted him or he decided to adopt us, but he brought with him values that would be welcome in any immigrant.
Rescorla enlisted in the U.S. Army, graduated from officer candidate school and then went to Vietnam as an officer with the 1st Air Calvary. There, he distinguished himself as a platoon commander. Known for incredible leadership, bravery and concern for his troops, they gave him the nick name “Hard Core” for his actions.
Read We Were Soldiers, Once … and Young, and you’ll meet Rescorla face-to-face, as his picture is on the cover. The book documents the battle of the Ia Drang Valley, and he was in the thick of it. The co-author, Lt. Gen. Hal Moore, described Rescorla as the “best platoon leader I ever saw.”
Back in the States after the war, he went to college, only stopping after he’d earned a law degree. By the mid 1990s, he was a cancer survivor and head of security at the Manhattan offices of Morgan Stanley-Dean Witter. Those are pretty impressive career credentials in their own right.
A Training Vision
But here’s where our link as trainers with Rick Rescorla begins to solidify. Well before Sept. 11, 2001, he’d looked into the future and predicted the possibility of jet airliners being used as devastating weapons. Specifically,
he feared for the safety of those who worked with him in the World Trade Center. This wasn’t the first time he had recognized a looming threat aimed directly at the WTC. In 1992, he expressed a concern that vehicle bombs left in one of the buildings’ basements could be used in an attempt to destroy the complex. The next year Muslim extremists proved him right.
On the heels of the WTC bombing, his proposal to move Morgan Stanley out of New York City was turned down for financial reasons. Rescorla accepted the fact that he couldn’t change this decision, but he correctly anticipated that the Twin Towers would once again be targeted. He came to believe that the next threat would be from the air, predicting a sequel attack using commercial jets. With such foresight, and under existing conditions that he couldn’t change, he identified a training need and took on another one of his life’s roles—that of a trainer.
Rescorla launched a preparedness program that included everyone at the company participating in quarterly evacuation drills from Tower Two. One of the hallmarks of these training exercises was Rescorla’s presence in the stairwells. With all his other responsibilities, it’s a good bet he could have assigned this to subordinates. But that wasn’t his leadership and training style. Using a megaphone during these drills, he would voice encouragement to the participants as a means to keep them moving. He would even sing to them. (This wasn’t without precedent. Accounts exist that in Vietnam during combat, he would sometimes do the same thing to calm his troops and bolster their courage.)
His training efforts focused on saving lives should the worst-case scenario happen. Then it did. When the first jet liner hit Tower One, the official word was passed to those in Tower Two that they should remain where they were. Recognizing this as a flawed and fateful decision, Rescorla went against the grain and ordered the evacuation of the Morgan Stanley employees. His actions remind me of a George Patton quote: “If everyone is thinking the same, then someone isn’t thinking.”
Such an evacuation was no small accomplishment. Located high on Tower Two, the company’s offices took up 20 floors with about 3,700 souls. Added to this is the fact that the first plane hit at 8:46 a.m., and the second sliced into their tower only 17 minutes later. In this short period, Rick Rescorla and his security personnel got their people moving out before the second plane fireballed through the floors above them.
This was primarily thanks to the preparedness Rescorla’s vision had created. Practiced on a regular basis, the training had turned into a massive life-saving event. Not only did they direct most of their own people out of the tower, but Rescorla and his men helped many others exit that huge building safely. At one point Rescorla was seen as far up as the 73rd floor in Tower Two. Keep in mind that the elevators weren’t running by then. One account documents that during the evacuation he was in a stairwell coaching the moving crowd to remain calm while he sang “God Bless America” through his trademark megaphone.
A Conscious Decision
Here’s the truly incredible thing. Once those potential terrorist victims were safe, Rescorla and three of his team members (Wesley Mercer, Jorge Velazquez, and Godwin Forde) went back into the building. This wasn’t too long before it collapsed. Think this through with me. He had just walked out of Tower Two. It was in flames—not just a couple of floors but multitudes of them. By now, people are jumping from windows above the inferno. Bodies are falling around him. Rescorla could have stayed outside and no one would have ever challenged him for his decision. But he knew that there were more people who might be saved. He chose to go back inside.
His body was never found.
There are amazing, inspiring points here: leadership, bravery, self-sacrifice and actions beyond the call of duty all come to mind. Rick Rescorla did what few could. Researching for this article, one line caught my attention: “People like Rick were put here to show the rest of us wimps what a real man is supposed to be like” (“Rick Rescorla: The True Spirit of 9/11,” by Hugh Wyatt; www.coachwyatt.com/rickrescorla.htm). In this context, consider the training legacy of Rick Rescorla. He identified a clear need and pursued it with a vision of how he could have a positive impact on the outcome.
Like Rick Rescorla, you may have experienced obstacles when, based on an identified need, you lobbied for some form of departmental action. In our line of work, this usually means getting important training out to the troops. We must understand that, like Rescorla, one has to work within guidelines that aren’t always going to be the preferred choice. A good law enforcement trainer still finds ways to get as much done as possible, because the payoff is real.
A Historical Parallel
So we’ve reached the 10th anniversary of our national heartache. 9/11 fell upon those of us who care about this country in a manner similar to what my parents felt in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack. While historically there have been other events that had some of the same impact—for example, Confederate troops firing on Fort Sumter to start the Civil War bloodletting—none have generated both national and world wide repercussions quite like these two events.
Here’s a story for you to consider. As a so-called “baby boomer,” I grew up with a pretty good awareness of what had happened on Dec. 7th, 1941. My parents were living in Los Angeles when the news broke. Their level of fear was so real that they engaged in “the big fight” of their marriage. Like many others, my father worried that the Southern California coast would be the Imperial Japanese Navy’s next invasion target. He wanted to put my mother and sister on a train back to Iowa as soon as possible while he would remain behind. It was that serious.
She would have nothing of it. She was staying with him and would not budge. It’s no surprise that Mom won the argument. I came along a few years after the war’s end and eventually heard this story. As I grew up, the evening news would mark each Dec. 7th with increasingly shortened comments on the day’s significance. Mom or Dad sometimes voiced a concern about the diminished coverage. This might be understandable to some degree, but as I became more historically aware, I also felt that this reflected a level of increasing complacency.
Such a diminution of sentiment is often a normal human behavior as time moves us further and further away from an event. In today’s world, especially here in the U.S., we have so many other issues and distractions. But when that day is of such incredible magnitude, we have an obligation—much as Mom and Dad taught me—to remember what a date like Dec. 7th means.
A decade ago, I promised to remember each Sept. 11th as long as I am able. So now comes the 10th anniversary. On that day, and each Sept. 11 after it, I’ll take a few moments to remember those who lost their lives that day. I’ll remember the heroes given to us all through their bravery and sacrifice. I’ll remember Rick Rescorla and his men as true role models. And on that day, I’ll remember that leadership, courage and training made a difference.
Train safe. God bless America.
An opera based on Rick Rescorla’s life, titled “Heart of a Soldier,” premieres at the San Francisco Opera Sept. 10. The opera is based on the book of the same title by Pulitzer-prize-winning author James B. Stewart. Rescorla’s wife, Susan, also wrote a book about her husband, called Touched by a Hero.
You can also view a video about Rescorla at www.RickRescorla.com, and buy the History Channel’s “The Man who Predicted 9/11” on their website.