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9/11: This hero was ready to disobey

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When you hear about the investment banking firm Morgan Stanley’s impressive emergency planning, know that it’s thanks to Rick Rescorla. The vice president of security pushed that planning, drilled it into employees and saved thousands of lives on Sept. 11, 2001.

A highly decorated colonel, Rescorla didn’t know at first that the World Trade Center was under attack. He did know that he had to disobey the N.Y. Port Authority’s order to stay put.

“Everything above where that plane hit is going to collapse and it’s going to take the whole building with it,” he told a fellow military officer by phone after the first impact at the north tower. “I’m getting my people out of here.” About 18 minutes later, the south tower was struck.

Morgan Stanley employed 3,700 workers at the World Trade Center, 2,700 of them on 22 floors in the south tower, and Rescorla was responsible for their safety. All but six survived.

Using a bullhorn, he directed employees down the south tower steps in pairs. Most knew the routine because Rescorla had run four or five evacuation drills a year.

He was well-trained himself. Joining the British army in 1957, he took part in commando missions. He became a U.S. citizen and graduated from officer candidate school in 1965, whereupon he started training soldiers for Vietnam. He was so resolute about conditioning that he had his platoons work twice as hard as everybody else: 10-mile runs instead of five, 100 push-ups instead of 50. His troops became known as “Hard Corps.”

Rescorla thought ahead. After the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, he theorized that terrorists might try ramming a cargo plane into the towers. In 1998, he told a film producer: “Hunting down terrorists, this will be the nature of war in the future.”

On Sept. 11, his preparation paid off. When people panicked in a smoke-filled staircase, Rescorla directed them to another one. As he had on the battlefield, he sang to keep them calm.

“Rick had set up a pretty elaborate procedure, so we were organized,” says John Olson, a former regional director for Morgan Stanley. “People were preconditioned.”

After Rescorla evacuated most employees, he went back to check for stragglers. Olson saw the safety director going back up and urged him to leave. Rescorla said he would as soon as he got everybody out. It was the last time anyone saw him.

— Adapted from “His Actions Saved Thousands,” Pete Barlas, Investor’s Business Daily.

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