Remember Rick Rescorla — Part III of my 9/11 trilogy

The problem with an assault and a tragedy that is the magnitude of 9/11, and that now lives nine years away in our memories, is that, as a writer, I become more and more at a loss of words with each passing year. It seems to me, therefore, that the best I can do is keep alive the memory of those who died. Each of the three about whom I’ve written annually was a fighter — one a firefighter who raced into a burning building, one a soldier who died joyfully saving the lives of thousands of others, and one a woman who lived with vigor and who I am sure, knowing her personality, was one of the ones who fought to take Flight 93 away from the terrorists. This is the story of Rick Rescorla, which is, to me, inextricably intertwined with the lessons we as a nation, need to learn if we are to avoid another 9/11 or simply the cultural meltdown that comes from handing ourselves over to the government:

One of the most frightening things about a nanny state is the way in which it saps each citizen’s ability to care for him or herself. While others may have been hurling imprecations at President Bush in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, I reserved my bile for a nanny state that left thousands of people standing around, incapable of helping themselves. All that they could even think of doing was to sit and wait for the government to come rescue them. A community that had spent two generations in the arms of the welfare state, while it still had the notion of self-preservation, was incapable of putting into effect the desire to live. Thousands of New Orleans’ residents simply stood helplessly on street corners.

I don’t blame those New Orleans citizens. They did what they were trained to do: wait for help. Jim Prevor is worried that the health care plan is going to increase that tendency, turning all Americans into people who stand there and, rather than being vigilant on their own behalves, always look to the government for help:

Its [ObamaCare’s] focus is on making the government responsible for providing healthcare. Which means, of course, that no child will ever be able to look at their father as I looked at mine growing up, that this man worked from dawn to dusk to fulfill his responsibilities to his family. He put food on the table, gave us shelter from the elements, clothes on our backs and, yes, he made sure we could go to the doctor or hospital when needed.


So much of the argument against Obamacare is presented on prudential grounds–it is too expensive, the budget is too high, people will lose the chance to go the doctor they prefer, etc. Yet the bigger argument is that if you give people guarantees of material things–food, shelter, health care–regardless of how they behave, then more people will behave irresponsibly.

There is a whole literature out there on how welfare, subsidized housing, food stamps, and Medicaid all helped to diminish the importance of low wage earning men in their own eyes and the eyes of their family. Poor working men, who were once the best chance a family had, suddenly were superfluous; thus the explosion of children growing up without their fathers at home.

Now Obamacare promises to make breadwinners less important to all families–that is unlikely to encourage more responsible behavior among the citizenry.

Prevor’s instincts are right on the money. As James K. Glassman explains in “The Hazard of Moral Hazard,” the more people are denied ultimate responsibility for their actions, the more irresponsible they become:

When someone insures you against the consequences of a nasty event, oddly enough, he raises the incentives for you to behave in a way that will cause the event. So if your diamond ring is insured for $50,000, you are more likely to leave it out of the safe. Economists call this phenomenon “moral hazard,” and if you look around, you will see it everywhere. “With automobile collision insurance, for example, one is more likely to venture forth on an icy night,” writes Harvard economist Richard Zeckhauser. “Federal deposit insurance made S&Ls more willing to take on risky loans. Federally subsidized flood insurance encourages citizens to build homes on flood plains.”

Bottom line, the more responsiblity we hand over to the government, the less we are able to care for ourselves. At this moment, some might ask, why does it matter? If the government can care for us, why shouldn’t it? We want to live in a nice, safe place, free from stress and worry. But as Hurricane Katrina and 9/11 show, that’s impossible. Even the most beneficent, well-organized, protective government cannot protect us from all things. And when the bomb explodes or the waters rise, if we have been completely leeched of any instincts or abilities towards self-preservation, we will die regardless of our long government.

All of which brings me to Rick Rescorla, who died on September 11, 2001 — but not before saving the lives of 2600 people. Rick Rescorla was a veteran of both the British and the American militaries. In both armies, he devoted his live to fighting against Communism.

On 9/11, Rescorla was in his office on the 44th Floor in the South Tower of the World Trade Center. I’m going to do something I seldom do here and quote at length from another’s post to describe Rescorla’s last day on earth. The emphasized language is mine:

In St. Augustine, Dan Hill [Rescorla’s army buddy] was laying tile in his upstairs bathroom when his wife called, “Dan, get down here! An airplane just flew into the World Trade Center. It’s a terrible accident.” Hill hurried downstairs, and then the phone rang. It was Rescorla, calling from his cell phone.

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

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

“I’m evacuating right now,” Rescorla said.

Hill could hear Rescorla issuing orders through the bullhorn. He was calm and collected, never raising his voice. Then Hill heard him break into song:

Men of Cornwall stop your dreaming;
Can’t you see their spearpoints gleaming?
See their warriors’ pennants streaming
To this battlefield.
Men of Cornwall stand ye steady;
It cannot be ever said ye
for the battle were not ready;
Stand and never yield!

Rescorla came back on the phone. “Pack a bag and get up here,” he said. “You can be my consultant again.” He added that the Port Authority was telling him not to evacuate and to order people to stay at their desks.

“What’d you say?” Hill asked.

“I said, ‘Piss off, you son of a bitch,’ ” Rescorla replied. “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 said, “I got to go. Get your shit in one basket and get ready to come up.”

Hill turned back to the TV and, within minutes, saw the second plane execute a sharp left turn and plunge into the south tower. Susan [Rescorla’s wife] saw it, too, and frantically phoned her husband’s office. No one answered.

About fifteen minutes later, the phone rang. It was Rick. She burst into tears and couldn’t talk.

“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.”

Susan cried even harder, gasping for breath. She felt a stab of fear, because the words sounded like those of someone who wasn’t coming back. “No!” she cried, but then he said he had to go. Cell-phone use was being curtailed so as not to interfere with emergency communications.

From the World Trade Center, Rescorla again called Hill. He said he was taking some of his security men and making a final sweep, to make sure no one was left behind, injured, or lost. Then he would evacuate himself. “Call Susan and calm her down,” he said. “She’s panicking.”

Hill reached Susan, who had just got off the phone with Sullivan. “Take it easy,” he said, as she continued to sob. “He’s been through tight spots before, a million times.”

Suddenly Susan screamed. Hill turned to look at his own television and saw the south tower collapse. He thought of the words Rescorla had so often used to comfort dying soldiers. “Susan, he’ll be O.K.,” he said gently. “Take deep breaths. Take it easy. If anyone will survive, Rick will survive.”

When Hill hung up, he turned to his wife. Her face was ashen. “Shit,” he said. “Rescorla is dead.”

The rest of Rick Rescorla’s morning is shrouded in some mystery. The tower went dark. Fire raged. Windows shattered. Rescorla headed upstairs before moving down; he helped evacuate several people above the 50th Floor. Stephan Newhouse, chairman of Morgan Stanley International, said at a memorial service in Hayle that Rescorla was spotted as high as the 72nd floor, then worked his way down, clearing floors as he went. He was telling people to stay calm, pace themselves, get off their cell phones, keep moving. At one point, he was so exhausted he had to sit for a few minutes, although he continued barking orders through his bullhorn. Morgan Stanley officials said he called headquarters shortly before the tower collapsed to say he was going back up to search for stragglers.

John Olson, a Morgan Stanley regional director, saw Rescorla reassuring colleagues in the 10th-floor stairwell. “Rick, you’ve got to get out, too,” Olson told him. “As soon as I make sure everyone else is out,” Rescorla replied.

Morgan Stanley officials say Rescorla also told employees that “today is a day to be proud to be American” and that “tomorrow, the whole world will be talking about you.” They say he also sang “God Bless America” and Cornish folk tunes in the stairwells. Those reports could not be confirmed, although they don’t sound out of character. He liked to sing in a crisis. But the documented truth is impressive enough. Morgan Stanley managing director Bob Sloss was the only employee who didn’t evacuate the 66th floor after the first plane hit, pausing to call his family and several underlings, even taking a call from a Bloomberg News reporter. Then the second plane hit, and his office walls cracked, and he felt the tower wagging like a dog’s tail. He clambered down to the 10th floor, and there was Rescorla, sweating through his suit in the heat, telling people they were almost out, making no move to leave himself.

Rick did not make it out. Neither did two of his security officers who were at his side. But only three other Morgan Stanley employees died when their building was obliterated.

Rescorla wasn’t a lamb to the slaughter. He gave his life joyously, actively participating in his own defense. As it happened, he was unable to save himself but, by ignoring a government mandate just to sit tight and let the government take care of things, Rescorla saved 2600 Morgan Stanley employees.

If you would like to learn more about Rescorla’s life — a life that was a training ground for his heroic death — please visit The Mudville Gazette and Blackfive.