What makes a hero? Is it poise under pressure, the willingness and ability to do the extraordinary when others might crumble? Is it the conscious sacrifice of self for the well-being of others? Is it bringing light to unfathomable darkness?
On America's darkest day, countless heroes were its light--running into crumbling buildings and fighting back on doomed airplanes; sacrificing themselves so that others might live. Their stories echo through history, just as one hero's songs echoed through the panicked stairways of a falling tower.
This is the forgotten history of the singing savior.
He was a soldier once...and young. But long before he was a soldier, Rick Rescorla was a young English boy who idolized them--and not just any soldiers, American soldiers. As they prepared for the D-Day invasion of France while stationed in his native Hayle (a town in the county of Cornwall), young Rick decided he wanted to be just like them.
At 17, he enlisted in the British Army and then served with the North Rhodesia Police as an inspector before returning to England and becoming a Metropolitan Police Officer in London. He quickly grew restless, though, as he missed the life of a soldier. It was all he ever wanted to be. And not just any soldier, an American soldier.
So, without enough money to live anywhere other than the local YMCA, he moved to the United States and enlisted in the Army. He was a soldier, an American soldier, and a great one. He rose through the ranks almost immediately and became a platoon leader in the Second Battalion, Seventh Cavalry Regiment, First Cavalry Division before his entire division was sent to Vietnam.
His commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore, later wrote a book about his service in Vietnam titled We Were Soldiers Once...and Young and devoted an entire chapter to Rick, whom he called the "Cornish Hawk." A picture of Rick even graced the book jacket. Moore called Rick "the best platoon leader I ever saw," and was amazed at how calm he could remain in even the deadliest of battles. So calm was he that he even sang during the gunfire in an effort to steady the nerves of the teenagers under his command.
Rick wasn't just a soldier, he was a decorated one--honored with the Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry for his service. He eventually reached the rank of colonel before leaving active duty in 1967 and, he thought, the life of a soldier for good.
America was his home, and he returned there to teach. Eventually, he left education for the corporate world, and took a job in security at Dean Witter Reynolds in the World Trade Center. Three years later, the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 convinced him that his own offices were vulnerable to a terrorist attack. His training as a soldier fighting against insurgent guerilla forces in Vietnam convinced him that radical Islamist terrorists could potentially target the Twin Towers.
In 1993, he was proven right. When Dean Witter Reynolds merged with Morgan Stanley, Rick was named head of corporate security and convinced his new company to leave the World Trade Center because it would always be a target for terrorists. They agreed, but their lease wasn't up for more than a decade. Rick pledged to spend that time warning New York's Port Authority about security weaknesses at the World Trade Center and making Morgan Stanley's offices as safe as possible.
They were, until September 11, 2001.
From his office in the South Tower, Rick watched as a plane struck the North. His worst fears had come true. A short time later, Port Authority blared a message over the Tower's loudspeakers telling workers what happened and urging them to stay at their desks.
"Piss off, you son of a bitch," a friend recalls Rick saying after hearing that message. "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 f*** out of here."
Almost immediately, he ordered everyone at Morgan Stanley to evacuate. He grabbed a bullhorn and led them down the stairs, pausing as they went to urge people on other floors to follow them out and to safety. As word circulated that this might have been a deliberate attack, panic set in. Rick remembered his days as a soldier and how he used to keep his men calm, and began singing songs into his bullhorn; but not just any songs, American songs.
He sang "God Bless America," and some in the crowd joined him as they made their way to safety. Hundreds got out. Then more than a thousand. Two thousand. In all, 2,700 people followed Rick out of the South Tower, almost all of them before the second plane struck it just 16 minutes after the first plane hit the North.
But the old soldier's duty wasn't done yet. There were still more people to save. He ran back into the building and called his wife Susan to tell her what was going on.
"Stop crying," she remembers him telling 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 can still hear him singing. To this day, that's what she remembers about Rick. He was always singing. The people he saved still hear it, too. 2,700 of them, all led to safety with a song in their heads to stop their panic in their hearts. Rick was last seen on the 10th floor of the South Tower, sprinting upstairs to save even more.
His life ended that day, but his song lives on forever.
Across the country and the world, "God Bless America" was given new meaning on 9/11, but no one holds it in their hearts quite like the 2,700 people who owe their lives to their singing savior.