As we approach the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attack on New York City’s World Trade Center, it is perhaps appropriate to remember that while this was undoubtedly one of the most horrific events in New York City’s history, it was in certain respects one of the most heroic.
In the 103 minutes that the World Trade Center stood after the first plane was flown into them, about 2,900 people died. At the same time, more than 12,000 people escaped from the towers, an amazing feat in which there were many heroes. Richard Rescorla, the English born security director of Morgan Stanley, is credited with saving the lives of more than 2,700 people.
There were about 2,720 employees of Morgan Stanley in their offices that day, and all but ten survived. Unfortunately, one of the ten who perished was Rescorla himself.
The World Trade Center was designed and constructed in the late 1960s under the leadership of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, strongly influenced by Governor Nelson Rockefeller. It was conceived as a monument to New York’s role as the international center of commerce and finance.
It was a public project that, even at the time, was considered by many to be tangential to the Port Authority’s role of building bridges, tunnels and airports. The project was an act of hubris intended to consolidate trade and financial companies in Lower Manhattan and establish New York City for all time as the international center of commerce and finance.
At the time the traditional financial center of the City on Wall Street was moving to Midtown, and many hoped the project would help keep finance and trade downtown. It’s said it was at the behest of the Port Authority public relations office that the building’s height was increased from 85 to 110 stories, taller than the Empire State Building, to lay claim to the tallest building in the world. (Shortly thereafter taller buildings were erected in Chicago, Malaysia and Abu Dahbi).
Although planned in the optimistic and economic boom times of the late sixties, it soon became evident that the dreams of its promoters were unlikely to be realized any time soon. With the severe economic downturn of the seventies rents evaporated and it was largely filled by various government offices. When it opened in 1970 many, if not most, New Yorkers considered its construction a colossal mistake. It was hardly the source of pride its creators had hoped.
Nevertheless, as the City’s economy, particularly its financial sector, improved in the mid- to late-1980s demand for office space increased. Companies began to look to the large vacant offices of the World Trade Center. Among these was the brokerage firm of Dean Witter & Company, which was soon to merge with the more prestigious Morgan Stanley. By 2001, the combined company of some 2,700 employees would occupy more than 15 floors in the middle of the North Tower.
Significant evidence of the revival of the fortunes of the World Trade Center was the fact that the New York and New Jersey Port Authority, much maligned for its decision to construct the building, received an offer in 2001 from Larry Silverstein. The prominent local real estate developer offered to purchase it for $3.2 billion, approximately the amount with interest and inflation it had cost 25 years earlier.
Cyril Richard Rescorla was born in Cornwall, England to a lower middle class family in 1939. As a child he had seen and admired American soldiers coming to his hometown of Hayle to defend Britain in the Second World War. In grade school and high school he had learned the legends of Celtic warriors who had defended his native Cornwall. He learned folk songs such as “Men of Harlech” extolling their virtues.
Around the time Rescorla was seventeen he sought adventure and a life more exciting than he might find in the small British town in which he was born and where his parents and grandparents had lived all their lives. He enlisted in the British Army, and was soon stationed in Cyprus. From there he heard that there were better pay with the police forces of the white supremacist separatist movement in Rhodesia.
In Rhodesia Rescorla befriended American mercenary Dan Hill. A brief stint with London’s Metropolitan Police helicopter unit, he and Hill enlisted in the American Army, considering it a route to combat and American citizenship. Rescorla was shipped to Vietnam where he became a decorated platoon leader in the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley under Colonel Hal Moore who commanded 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment. According to his family and friends, it was in Vietnam that Rescorla took to heart the “no man left behind” creed.
With the withdrawal of the American forces from Vietnam, Rescorla, now a U.S. citizen, became a beneficiary of the GI Bill. He enrolled in college and later law school at the University of Oklahoma. Upon graduating from law school, he obtained a job as a security officer at the Continental Bank of Chicago. Part of his job there was to uncover bank fraud. Around this time he got married and had two children. Some years later when the Bank of Chicago downsized he obtained a job as a senior security officer with Dean Witter in New York (later Morgan Stanley). He moved to New Jersey suburb of Morristown, and was later divorced from his first wife.
While in his fifties and commuting to Lower Manhattan he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Shortly thereafter he met Susan Greer, a fellow divorcee who was an assistant to a bank president. Her ancestors went back to the American Revolution. They soon married, and despite his cancer diagnosis, had a fulfilling late in life romance. Shortly before 9/11 Rescorla was informed that his cancer was in remission. He discussed with Susan the possibility that he might receive a buyout from Morgan Stanley that would permit him to retire and spend more time with his family. Instead, he was promoted to Vice-President of Security.
World Trade Center Attacks
After his promotion, Rescorla asked his old friend Dan Hill to come up to New York for a look at the World Trade Center to analyze how a terrorist might attack the building he was charged with keeping secure for Morgan Stanley. Hill told Rescorla that there was virtually no security at the World Trade Center garage and that a terrorist could easily fill a van with explosives and try to bring the whole building down. Rescorla wrote a report to Morgan Stanley and Port Authority management urging that security at the garage be greatly increased. Before it could be fully implemented, on February 26, 1993, an terrorist drove a truck full of explosives into the garage. Although the building withstood the blast, it was significantly damaged and six people were killed.
As a result of having predicted the terrorist attack in 1993, Rescorla’s prestige with Morgan Stnaley and Port Authority Management significantly increased. He was given a free hand to insist on better lighting and marking for all stairways, and despite grumbling from some, he insisted on regular mandatory security drills to evacuate the building. Rescorla also went on unsuccessfully lobby Morgan Stanley management to move out of the World Trade Center to more nondescript facilities in New Jersey.
When word that a plane had hit the North Tower reached Rescorla he immediately ordered all Morgan Stanley employees to evacuate the building in accordance with the many drills he had insisted upon. Carrying a bull horn and singing the Celtic folk songs he had taught as a youth, he led groups to the stairwells. Ultimately, more than 2,700 employees reach safety before the tower toppled an hour later.
When Rescorla was told that there were people left behind he reentered the building the find them. When the tower collapsed Rescorla was never seen again. Morgan Stanley lost just ten employees. Some days later Rescorla was hailed by Morgan Stanley President Phillip Purcell, who credited him with saving so many lives.
There were many heroes in New York City that day – including the more than 400 police and firemen who died trying to rescue people on other floors. There were numerous stories of self-sacrifice, grace and courage throughout that day – many of them were centered on immigrants from around the world.
Fifteen years later the recently formed Lower Manhattan Historical Association (LMHA), concerned about attacks on immigrants, established the Alexander Hamilton Immigrant Achievement Award, to recognize immigrants to the City who, like Alexander Hamilton, had contributed to its greatness. Cyril Richard Rescorla was at the top of the list as one of the first possible recipients of the Award, which his widow Susan accepted on his behalf in a ceremony at Federal Hall.
Photo of September 11th attacks in New York City; view of the World Trade Center and the Statue of Liberty courtesy US National Park Service.