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home : opinion : e-opinion January 20, 2022

9/12/2021 6:27:00 PM
One More Remembrance
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Rev. Dr. Claude Williams and Fire Chief Eric Withers

All photos courtesy of Bill Ward Photography, Stanley, NC

Wayne Howard

Sept. 10, 2001, was a normal day. New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani attended a rededication ceremony at a South Bronx firehouse, where the chaplain Mychal Judge commented: "You have no idea when you get on that rig. No matter how big the call, no matter how small, you have no idea what God is calling you to." Judge had no way of knowing what was coming...that he would become the first confirmed fatality of the attacks on the World Trade Center the next day.

Terrorism was something that happened somewhere else…like Istanbul, Turkey, where two policemen were killed and  20 people injured by a suicide bomber.

For 3,031 people who would be at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and on four hijacked airliners the next day, it was the last day of their lives, but on Monday night, September 10th, 246 people went to sleep in preparation for morning flights. 2,606 people went to sleep before going to work the next morning. 343 firefighters prepared for their Tuesday morning shift. 60 police knew they’d be on morning patrol. 8 paramedics went to sleep in preparation for their morning shift saving lives.

It has been said that nobody saw the September 11th attacks coming, but that isn’t exactly true.

It is true that American intelligence intercepted messages that said, “Tomorrow is Zero Day.”  But they didn’t understand what that and other similar messages meant.

Rick Rescorla knew.  As the director of security for the financial services firm Morgan Stanley at the World Trade Center, Rescorla anticipated attacks on the towers and implemented evacuation procedures credited with saving thousands of lives.

Rescorla served as a British Army paratrooper before joining the US Army during the Vietnam War. He eventually rose to the rank of colonel, and he was awarded the Medal of Honor.  Rescorla is the soldier pictured on the book jacket cover of the book We Were Soldiers Once… And Young, (from which the 2002 Mel Gibson film We Were Soldiers would be adapted).

While it has been said of the September 11, 2001 attacks, “never forget,” most Americans don’t know about an earlier attempt to destroy the World Trade Center.  On February 26, 1993, a bomb exploded in a parking garage.  That attack didn’t bring down the building—as was likely intended—but it did kill six people. 

Ramzi Yousef, the driver of the explosives-laden truck, escaped to Pakistan.  He would eventually be caught two years later. 

Following the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, Rescorla worried about a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. He asked an old friend from Northern Rhodesia, Daniel Hill, who was trained in counterterrorism, to visit the World Trade Center to assess its security. When Rescorla asked Hill how he would attack the building, Hill asked Rescorla to walk with him to the basement parking garage.  The two encountered no visible security.  Hill pointed to an easily accessible load-bearing column, and said, "I’d drive a truck full of explosives in here, walk out, and set it off.”  The two made a report to the Port Authority, and security was improved—but the 1993 bombing attempt happened anyway. 

Rescorla’s report and the bombing attempt gave him  more credibility.  He wanted Morgan Stanley,  the largest tenant in the World Trade Center, out of the building because he felt, as did Hill, that the World Trade Center was still a target for terrorists.  The two even warned that the next attack could involve a plane crashing into one of the towers. But the company's lease at the World Trade Center wouldn’t terminate until 2006. So Rescorla, believing they could not rely on first responders in an emergency and needed to empower themselves through surprise fire drills, trained employees (including senior executives) to meet in the hallway between stairwells and go down the stairs two by two.  They practiced emergency evacuations every three months.

When American Airlines Flight 11 struck the North Tower at 8:46a.m., Rescorla heard the explosion and saw the tower burning from his office window on the 44th floor of the South Tower. A Port Authority announcement came over the P.A. system urging people to stay at their desks, but Rescorla ignored the announcement, grabbed his bullhorn, walkie-talkie, and cell phone, and began ordering Morgan Stanley employees to evacuate. He directed them down a stairwell from the 44th floor, continuing to calm employees after the building lurched violently following the crash of United Airlines Flight 175 38 floors above at 9:03 a.m. Morgan Stanley executive Bill McMahon stated that even a group of 250 people visiting the offices for a stockbroker training class knew what to do because they had been shown the nearest stairway.

Rescorla called his wife, telling her, "Stop crying. 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." After successfully evacuating most of Morgan Stanley's 2,700 employees, he went back into the building to try to rescue others. He was last seen on the 10th floor, heading upward, shortly before the South Tower collapsed at 9:59 A.M. His remains were never found.

In 2019, he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal, the nation's second-highest civilian award after the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

"Rick earned the Silver Star and the Purple Heart for his service in Vietnam," President Donald Trump said..."On the day of the attack, Rick died while leading countless others to safety. His selfless actions saved approximately 2,700 lives."

There were many commemorations of the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attacks.  The town of Dallas held one on its old courthouse square.  Others were held in other area towns including Stanley, where the Fire Dept. hosted a Memorial Service.  The Lincoln County Republican Women held an event at the East Lincoln Community Center to honor all first responders. 

In that it was unexpected, the September 11th attack bears some similarity to the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941; but while the Pentagon was one of the targets, the World Trade Center was not in any way related to the military.  Many of those who died were not Americans.

The symbolism for which the terrorists had hoped—the destruction of symbols in the US—should be far overshadowed by the fact that their attack took the lives of thousands of civilians with whom they had no legitimate quarrel.  We will “never forget”—and while Dec. 7th will forever be remembered as a ‘day of infamy,’ September 11th, 2001 will be remembered as a tragedy and the men who caused it as zealots who valued their own views over the lives of others. 

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