The Heroic Story Of Rick Rescorla — And How He Made The Ultimate Sacrifice To Save Thousands On 9/11

Published May 2, 2024
Updated May 3, 2024

Rick Rescorla fought for the British military for six years and earned a Purple Heart for his service with the U.S. Army in Vietnam — but the bravest moment of his life came on September 11, 2001.

As smoke enveloped the South Tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, a voice rang out in a stairwell that was filled with thousands scrambling for safety. Rick Rescorla, the vice president of security at Morgan Stanley, was singing “God Bless America” on a bullhorn.

A Vietnam war hero, Rescorla successfully evacuated nearly every Morgan Stanley employee from the tower, saving 2,700 lives.

“Everybody said, ‘Rick, your folks are out. You’ve done what you need to do,'” Lt. Col. Andrew Watson recalled at a dedication ceremony for Rescorla in 2015, “but he pointed up the stairwell and said, ‘You hear those screams? There’s more people up there. I have to help get them out.'”

Rick Rescorla

Congressional Medal of Honor SocietyRick Rescorla spent years preparing for a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center — and on 9/11, his planning saved thousands.

Rescorla’s actions cost him his life — but they secured his legacy as a hero.

Rick Rescorla’s Heroism On 9/11

When American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11, Rick Rescorla was working on the 44th floor of the South Tower. The war hero stayed calm and ignored the orders blasting from the loudspeaker to shelter in place. Instead, Rescorla grabbed a megaphone and began evacuating 2,700 Morgan Stanley employees.

The workers knew what to do — Rescorla had led them in an emergency evacuation training program he’d created twice a year.

Rescorla’s wife, Susan, called him when she saw the news that a plane had hit the North Tower. He was busy leading evacuation efforts, but one of his co-workers told her, “Don’t worry. It’s fine, it’s contained. Rick is getting everyone out. He’s out there with the bullhorn now.”

Rick Rescorla’s plan went smoothly at first, but when a second plane struck the South Tower, the urgency to escape grew. So, Rescorla began to sing his own version of “Men of Harlech,” a Welsh battle song, over the megaphone. Years earlier in Vietnam, Rescorla had sung to his men, calming their nerves on the killing fields of Ia Drang.

South Tower Impact

National Institute of Standards and TechnologyWhen United Airlines Flight 175 hit the South Tower, Rick Rescorla had already begun to evacuate 2,700 Morgan Stanley employees.

As he led the evacuation, Rescorla called Susan for the last time. “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.”

Even when the Morgan Stanley employees reached safety, Rescorla refused to leave anyone behind. He headed back up the stairs to save more lives.

Rescorla was last seen on the 10th floor of the South Tower moments before it collapsed. His body was never recovered.

“He had a choice,” said Susan at the 2015 dedication ceremony, according to “He could have walked out of there anytime he wanted to. If he was here today, he would be proud.”

However, Rick Rescorla’s heroic action on 9/11 wasn’t the first time he’d made a tough choice to save others.

Who Was Rick Rescorla?

Born in Cornwall in 1939, Rick Rescorla watched American soldiers stationed in his hometown as a boy. Fascinated by the World War II infantrymen, Rescorla would later follow in their footsteps, joining the British military at 16 years old.

So, how did a Cornish soldier end up working in security at the Twin Towers? Decades earlier, Rescorla had moved to the U.S. to fight in Vietnam.

Rick Rescorla In Vietnam

United States ArmyRick Rescorla was a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War.

After serving in the British military as a paratrooper and a police inspector, Rescorla wanted more action. According to Sky HISTORY, his friend Daniel Hill recalled, “He was looking for bang-bang shoot-’em-up.” Hill suggested they both enlist in the U.S. Army so they could see action in the Vietnam War.

In 1963, Rescorla finished basic training at Fort Dix in New Jersey. He was quickly promoted as an officer. And two years later, the Cornishman was a platoon leader in the midst of one of the deadliest battles in a bloody war.

How A Cornishman Became A Vietnam War Hero

In Vietnam, Rescorla’s platoon landed via helicopter in Ia Drang Valley, which became known as the Valley of Death. The brutal battle was the first major engagement between U.S. forces and the People’s Army of North Vietnam.

While holding their line for three long days, Rescorla kept up his men’s spirits through song.

“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,” recalled radio operator Sam Fantino.

Rescorla earned the nickname “Hard Core” in Vietnam, along with a Purple Heart and a Silver Star. When the war ended, the veteran returned to America and became a U.S. citizen. He earned a law degree and got married. By the mid-1980s, Rescorla was working in corporate security at the World Trade Center.

Before the 1993 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, Rescorla and Hill, who had become a counterterrorism expert, thoroughly inspected the Twin Towers for security weaknesses. Rescorla warned that the basement parking garage left the towers vulnerable to attack — but authorities ignored him. Then, in 1993, a truck bomb exploded in the parking garage, killing six.

1993 Bombing Wreckage

Federal Bureau of InvestigationEven before the 1993 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, Rick Rescorla warned authorities that the basement presented a security risk.

On that day in 1993, according to the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, Rescorla led the Morgan Stanley evacuation. Convinced that terrorists would target the Twin Towers in the future, Rescorla designed a strict disaster contingency plan, which he regularly rehearsed with employees.

That plan allowed Rescorla to save 2,700 lives on 9/11.

Earning The Presidential Citizens Medal

Rick Rescorla was not supposed to be in the Twin Towers on 9/11. He gave up a holiday to let a colleague take the day off. But when the planes hit the towers, Rescorla leaped into action.

During the chaos, Rescorla called his Vietnam War buddy Dan Hill. On their last phone call, Rescorla told Hill to get to New York as soon as possible — he’d be needed for rescue efforts.

South Tower In Flames

National Institute of Standards and TechnologyIn spite of the danger, Rick Rescorla returned to the South Tower after evacuating 2,700 Morgan Stanley employees.

In 2019, Rick Rescorla received the Presidential Citizens Medal posthumously. During the ceremony, battalion commander Watson praised Rescorla for his service.

“How better can you epitomize selfless service to a nation than to first embark on the conflict in Vietnam, and then to continue to serve your community at every level you find yourself?” Watson asked.

Watson praised Rescorla for giving his “last full measure of dedication of service and support in an unexpected terrorist attack.”

Rick Rescorla's Memorial

Luigi Novi/Wikimedia CommonsRick Rescorla’s name appears at the National September 11 Memorial.

Rick Rescorla was one of just 13 Morgan Stanley employees who died on 9/11. Without Rescorla’s fearless heroism, which saved 2,700 lives, that number would have been much higher.

As Hill put it, “You see, for Rick Rescorla, this was a natural death… There are certain men born in this world, and they’re supposed to die setting an example for the rest of the weak bastards we’re surrounded with.”

Rick Rescorla was one of many heroes who saved lives on 9/11. Next, read about Mark Bingham, who helped lead the passenger revolt on Flight 93. Then, go inside the story of Michael Hingson and his guide dog Roselle, who led him to safety during the 9/11 attacks.

Genevieve Carlton
Genevieve Carlton earned a Ph.D in history from Northwestern University with a focus on early modern Europe and the history of science and medicine before becoming a history professor at the University of Louisville. In addition to scholarly publications with top presses, she has written for Atlas Obscura and Ranker.
Cara Johnson
A writer and editor based in Charleston, South Carolina and an assistant editor at All That's Interesting, Cara Johnson holds a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from Washington & Lee University and an M.A. in English from College of Charleston and has written for various publications in her six-year career.
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Carlton, Genevieve. "The Heroic Story Of Rick Rescorla — And How He Made The Ultimate Sacrifice To Save Thousands On 9/11.", May 2, 2024, Accessed May 23, 2024.