Rick Rescorla: The hero of 9/11

All the top executives of Morgan Stanley hated him. Rick Rescorla was their head of security. And he would make them do emergency evacuation drills every quarter. 

Everyone would have to evacuate and go down the stairs from the 44th floor of the building! It would disrupt the whole workspace, and most people thought it was unneeded. They thought Rescorla was extremely paranoid. But Rescorla didn’t give in even when higher up executives complained.

In fact, Rescorla hired Daniel Hill – who was an expert at counter terrorism – to assess his security measures. Hill was the guy who had recommended to the Port Authority of New York to improve the security of the parking garages in World Trade Center. But no one had heeded him, and the World Trade Center experienced a bombing in 1993!

Should Morgan Stanley quit New York?

Hill’s recommendation to Rescorla? Morgan Stanley should not remain in the World Trade Center in New York. It was too risky a skyscraper. It was the highlight of the New York skyline, and so would have a bullseye on it.

Rescorla drafted a presentation asking Morgan Stanley to move to New Jersey. It would save them on employee costs as well. But he wasn’t taken very seriously. And Morgan Stanley had a lease at the South Tower of the World Trade Center till 2006, so they weren’t going anywhere till then at the least.

Unfortunately for them. Rescorla’s worst nightmare came true on September 11 2001.

The first tower is hit

At 8:46 AM, Rescorla saw the North Tower burning from his office window. The building authority announces over the PA that everyone should remain at their desks. But Rescorla ignores the announcement. And starts evacuating 2700 Morgan Stanley employees from the South Tower!

And thank God he ignored the instructions – because at 9:03 AM, the South tower was hit as well! If Rescorla would not have started right away, there is no chance so many employees would have managed to get down from the higher floors!

Paranoia vs preparation

It was Rescorla’s quarterly evacuation drills that made sure people didn’t panic and got down in double time. What everyone for years thought was paranoia ended up saving their lives!

So what’s the difference between being paranoid and being prepared?

Paranoia is rooted in false belief. 

Even though Rescorla seemed paranoid, he was not. He seeked out professionals and asked them to use their experience and assess the risks. His fear was based on true possibility. Maybe a remote possibility, but why take that chance when the downside was so high?

“Be Prepared”

Scouting founder Robert Baden-Powell coined the term: Be prepared.

When he is asked “prepared for what?” – he answers:

“Why, for any old thing!”

Baden-Powell believed that one must always be in a state of readiness. Bad things always happen suddenly. So one must plan for contingencies. And always be prepared.

  • Identify and assess risks
  • Regularly train to mitigate those risks

It was the same mindset Rescorla had as well. Unfortunately, Rescorla ran back up in the burning building to make sure that all his people had evacuated. And perished when the South Tower crashed!

But not before he had single handedly reduced the death toll of the horrific 9/11 attacks by almost half!

Action Summary:

  • Seek out the possibility of the worst case scenario occurring. Ask the experts to assess and audit the situation.
  • Then plan for the worst case. Develop comprehensive plans for identified risks.
  • Train regularly to ensure readiness.