• search-icon

The Inspirational Tale of a Vietnam Vet Who Saved Thousands of Lives on 9/11

Meet Rick Rescorla, a US and UK vet whose quick action saved countless souls in 2001.

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!"

As employees of Morgan Stanley evacuated the South Tower on 9/11, they heard a familiar voice singing to them. Rick Rescorla, their Vice President of Security, was calmly and efficiently guiding them out of the offices and down a stairwell. Moments earlier, a plane had struck the North Tower, and a PA announcement had told workers in the South Tower to remain at their desks.

Rescorla would have none of that.

Grabbing his bullhorn and walkie-talkie, he immediately ushered the employees out. As the employees were going down the stairwell, the building lurched suddenly. The second plane had hit above them, and the building violently shook. As the evacuation started to turn to panic, the voice of Rescorla called out. Remain calm, help each other, be proud of being Americans, we will get through this. Then the singing. The employees took strength in his calm demeanor and followed and helped each other down the tower. By the end of it, almost 2,700 employees made it safely out of the building. Of all of Morgan Stanley's employees, only six didn't make it.

Rescorla was one of them.

Related: A Soldier’s Story: 12 War Books Told by Those Who Were There� 

He was last seen on the 10th floor. Like many heroes who perished on that day of days, he was headed up the stairs and into the fire to find more people to save. His body was never found.

As Morgan Stanley employees shared their stories about Rick and how calming he was, quite a few talked about the singing. They remembered the surreality of his voice, calming as if telling them everything would be okay.

As the stories spread, they reached a few men who were quite familiar with Rick's singing. He had also sung to them when they were in a life-or-death situation, years earlier on the edge of a mountain in the Ia Drang valley in Vietnam.

rick rescorla
  • The Twin Towers on 9/11. 

  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Rick Rescorla was born in Cornwall in the United Kingdom in 1939. At 17, he signed up to join the British military and ended up fighting against insurgents in Cyprus in the late 1950s. From there, he ended up in Rhodesia (present-day Zambia) as part of the North Rhodesian Police. He met an American named Daniel Hill, who would become a lifelong friend.

Rescorla, by this time, was very much an anti-communist, and Hill had told him that the United States was sending troops to a place called Vietnam to prevent the spread of communism there.

Related: 365 Days: Ronald Glasser’s Moving Account of the Vietnam War

As soon as his contract was up, Rescorla worked to make his way to the States. He lived in a hostel and waited for the first chance to enlist in the United States Army. He ended up being selected to Officer Candidate School and, after further training, ended up on the 7th Calvary. The unit had once been led by George Custer into the last stand at Little Bighorn. Rescorla would be under the command of Hal Moore, and would find himself headed into a last stand of his own.

Most of us have seen the movie, We Were Soldiers or read the amazing book the movie was based on. Rick Rescorla was a platoon leader and was one of many American soldiers who showed their bravery and tenacity on that battlefield. The battle was the first major engagement of the war and Rescorla saw first-hand how bloody it would be.

"There were American and NVA bodies everywhere. My area was where Lt. Geoghegan's platoon had been. There were several dead NVA around his platoon command post. One dead trooper was locked in contact with a dead NVA, hands around the enemy's throat. There were two troopers—one black, one Hispanic—linked tight together. It looked like they had died trying to help each other."

Related: 9 Fascinating Vietnam War Books 

Through the thick of battle, Rescorla was seen moving from position to position, encouraging his men and singing Cornish and Welsh hymns to them. It put them at ease and got them settled down to see their leader keeping his cool.

At the end of the battle, Rescorla famously found an old French bugle on the body of a dead North Vietnamese soldier. It was a trophy from the previous war fought in Vietnam between the Vietnamese and French colonialists. A photo of Rescorla moving around the battlefield became one of the enduring images of the Vietnam war.

After the military, Rescorla went into academics for a while, before deciding to get into the world of private security. He ended up becoming the head of security of Dean Whitter, which later would merge into Morgan Stanley. 

rick rescorla
  • Rescorla during the Vietnam War.

  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Working out of the World Trade Center, he once brought in his old friend Hill from Rhodesia, now also a security consultant, to give a security analysis of the complex. They both headed down to the underground garage and found an exposed load-bearing beam that might crumble with a powerful enough explosion.

The pair wrote up a report saying the load-bearing beam was too accessible and should be protected. The report was made in 1990. It was ignored. Three years later, Muslim extremists drove a rental truck laden with explosives into the basement of the World Trade Center and targeted that column. Luckily it held, but Rescorla knew they would try again someday...

He implemented major changes at Dean Whitter and later Morgan Stanley to ensure that employees would know what to do in case of a major emergency. He drilled them constantly on evacuation drills and made sure everyone knew where to go if the worst happened.

As the years since the bombings passed, people got complacent. Management would throw fits during drills as they view them as unnecessary and a distraction. Rescorla didn't care. He was certain another attempt would be made and even asked Morgan Stanley to move to a location in New Jersey. He even ventured the next attack would be via a cargo plane laden with explosives.

He was nearly right.

Related: 10 War Books That Enlighten, Move, and Educate Their Readers 

On the fateful day as Morgan Stanley employees filed out of the building, they saw a familiar face. With his bullhorn, Rescorla projected calmness as he directed them down the stairwells. As they walked down two by two and maintaining space so they wouldn't bunch up as they had drilled constantly, they heard the singing.

As he was with his troops in Vietnam, Rick Rescorla was the cool, calm and collected leader in the maelstrom of hell on the fateful September day.

For his bravery, this past year, Rescorla was posthumously awarded the Presidential Citizenship Medal by President Donald Trump in a ceremony at the White House.

Published on 06 May 2020

scroll up