Amanda Ripley

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Call for Nominations: The Rick Rescorla Award

11th May 2012 posted in Resilience

This year, for the first time, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will recognize a regular, non-governmental human (or organization) for acts of superior leadership and innovation—through a new honor called the Rick Rescorla National Award for Resilience.

This is a big deal. For years, schmucks like me have been haranguing the federal government for failing to highlight the stories and wisdom of the regular people who make our country more resilient. Instead of talking about how government is going to make us safe, we ought to start listening—to the t-shirt vendors, the flight attendants, the survivors and the guy in the aisle seat, to the Rick Rescorlas of the world who have shown us how the public can prevent and respond to disasters with grace, courage and initiative.

Well, now DHS is doing it, in at least one symbolic and important way. Please send your nominations asap to rescorlaaward@hq.dhs.gov. More details and the nomination form can be found here. The deadline is June 1, 2012.

The award was named after Rick Rescorla, the head of security for Morgan Stanley Dean Witter in the World Trade Center. I wrote about Rescorla in The Unthinkable, and I’ve talked about him around the country. His story is impossible to forget once you’ve heard it. So let me share some of it here, now that we have a good excuse…

Rick Rescorla was one of those thick-necked, former soldier types who spent the second halves of their lives patrolling the perimeters of marble lobbies the way they once patrolled a battlefield. He was disciplined in everything he did, and he understood the power of the human brain to get better through practice.

After the 1993 bombing and the fiasco of an evacuation that followed, Rescorla decided that Morgan Stanley employees had to take full responsibility for their own survival— something that happened almost nowhere else in the Trade Center. He knew it was foolish to rely on first responders to save his employees. His company was the largest tenant in the World Trade Center, a village nestled in the clouds. Morgan Stanley’s employees would need to take care of one another.

From then on, Rescorla started running the entire company through frequent, surprise fire drills. He trained employees to meet in the hallway between the stairwells and, at his direction, go down the stairs, two by two, to the forty-fourth floor. He noticed they moved slowly, so he started timing them with a stopwatch—and they got faster.

The radicalism of Rescorla’s drills cannot be overstated. Remember, Morgan Stanley was an investment bank. Millionaire, high-performance bankers on the 73rd floor chafed at Rescorla’s evacuation regimen. They did not appreciate interrupting high-net-worth clients in the middle of a meeting. Each drill, which pulled the firm’s brokers off their phones and away from their computers, cost the company money. But Rescorla did it anyway. He didn’t care whether he was popular.

When guests visited Morgan Stanley for training, Rescorla made sure they all knew how to get out too. Even though the chances were slim, Rescorla wanted them ready for an evacuation.

On the morning of 9/11, Rescorla heard an explosion and saw Tower 1 burning from his office window. A Port Authority official came over the public address system and urged everyone to remain at their desks. But Rescorla grabbed his bullhorn, his walkie-talkie, and his cell phone and began systematically ordering Morgan Stanley employees to get out. They already knew what to do, even the 250 visitors who were taking a stockbroker training class and had already been shown the nearest stairway.

Rescorla had led soldiers through the Vietcong-controlled Central Highlands of Vietnam. He knew the brain responded poorly to extreme fear. Back then, he had calmed his men by singing Cornish songs from his youth. Now, in the crowded stairwell, as his sweat leached through his suit jacket, Rescorla began to sing into the bullhorn. “Men of Cornwall stand ye steady; It cannot be ever said ye for the battle were not ready; Stand and never yield!”

Moments later, Rescorla had successfully evacuated the vast majority of Morgan Stanley employees out of the burning tower. Then he turned around. He was last seen on the 10th floor, heading upward, shortly before the tower collapsed. His remains have never been found.

Rescorla taught Morgan Stanley employees to save themselves. It’s a lesson that had become, somehow, rare and precious. When the tower collapsed, only 13 Morgan Stanley colleagues—including Rescorla and four of his security officers—were inside. The other 2,687 were safe.