Remembering 9/11 and the lessons of Rick Rescorla


Today we remember all those who were victims of the 9/11 attacks. However, we would particularly like to highlight Cyril Richard “Rick” Rescorla, who was Director of Security for Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, and remains the only member of the International Security Management Association (ISMA) to have been killed in action. A colourful character, Rescorla had served in the British Army as a paratrooper and intelligence specialist and then been active in Rhodesia before eventually joining the US military, serving with the 7th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) at Ia Drang. He was described as “the best platoon leader I ever saw” by Maj Gen Hal Moore, who commanded at the battle, and later co-wrote the famous book We Were Soldiers Once…And Young.

Rescorla joined what was then Dean Witter Reynolds in 1985, working at the firm’s World Trade Center offices in Manhattan. The 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 brought his attention to the potential terrorist threat to Western targets. In 1990 he therefore brought a friend who was a counter-terrorism specialist to examine security at the World Trade Center. The key question asked was how he would target the building were he a terrorist – a classic example of red-teaming. The conclusion was that load-bearing columns were easily accessible via the parking garage, and this was highlighted in a report for the buildings’ owners later that year.

As shown in 1993, this turned out to be a highly accurate assessment. Rescorla continued to advise his employer to move out of the building, which he considered – again accurately – to be a persistent target. However, the bank’s lease on the property would not expire until 2006, and breaking this was too expensive. Instead, the firm agreed to other mitigation measures, including mandatory evacuation procedures that were taken very seriously indeed. Although this often brought Rescorla into conflict with senior executives, they too were expected to carry out the drills when the test alarm went off, being hauled off business calls or out of meetings in order to participate.

Although Rescorla was doubtless cursed by a number of people, especially when he deployed his stopwatch to explain why they weren’t evacuating fast enough, this of course all paid at 08:46 on September 11, 2001. When the first plane hit Tower 1 – opposite Morgan Stanley’s offices – Rescorla ignored the announcement to stay put and began ordering a mass evacuation of all employees. Notably, even visitors to the building who had come for a training class knew what to do as they had also been exposed to a full safety briefing. Eventually, over 2,600 of the firm’s employees were safely evacuated as a result of Rescorla’s intelligence-led foresight, preparation and planning – saving untold lives. Indeed, many were well on the way out of the building before their own tower was hit by the second plane.

In a further example of his leadership, Rescorla sung to the evacuees to maintain morale. Most tellingly of all, he kept returning to the tower once his own people were safe, in order to help others. He was last seen on the tenth floor, heading upwards, shortly before the building collapsed.

Although it might be easy with hindsight to castigate Morgan Stanley for not moving away from the WTC site, the reality remains that risk must be balanced with cost. Mitigating the risk by giving Rescorla the top-level backing to implement effective and life-saving procedures ultimately worked – and serves as a salient example of corporate security intelligence at work.

(Excerpt taken with permission from Corporate Security Intelligence and Strategic Decision Making).

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