September 11, 2011

ORDINARY PEOPLE:

Opera Recalls A Hero's Life, Love and Song (CORI ELLISON, 9/04/11, NY Times)

The story of Rescorla's heroism during the World Trade Center attacks is the stuff of opera, a hypertheatrical medium that holds a magnifying mirror up to nature. So it's not entirely surprising that Rescorla's story will materialize on the stage of the San Francisco Opera in the form of "Heart of a Soldier" beginning on Saturday, the eve of the 10th anniversary of the attacks. The opera, composed by Christopher Theofanidis to a libretto by Donna DiNovelli, is based on the book of the same title (Simon & Schuster), written in 2002 by the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist James B. Stewart, who now writes the "Common Sense" column for the Business Day section of The New York Times. [...]

The final chapter of the life of Rick Rescorla, who was the second vice president for corporate security for Morgan Stanley at the World Trade Center, has also been documented in a 2002 film from the History Channel, "The Man Who Predicted 9/11." Convinced that Osama bin Laden would attack the World Trade Center, Rescorla had developed a detailed evacuation plan, and on Sept. 11 he defied official instructions and implemented it.

The opera "Heart of a Soldier," ranging far beyond Rescorla's final days, traces the broad sweep of his life against the volatile historical landscape of the late 20th century. It begins with his boyhood in Cornwall, England, where he was indelibly struck by the American G.I.'s who arrived in 1943 to prepare for the D-Day invasion of Normandy. The opera continues with Rescorla's stint with the British military police in war-torn Rhodesia, where he forges a deep and life-altering friendship with an American soldier, Daniel J. Hill, who inspires him to join the United States Army and serve in Vietnam.

Several decades later Rescorla is a retired Army colonel, decorated veteran of three wars and survivor of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. The opera's focus shifts to his idyllic autumn romance with Susan Greer, who became his second wife.

The opera's final scenes depict Rescorla's actions on Sept. 11. Between 8:46 a.m., when American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the World Trade Center's North Tower, and 9:03 a.m., when United Airlines Flight 175 hit the South Tower, Rescorla mobilized to evacuate all but 6 of his company's 2,700 employees, who worked on the 44th through 74th floors of the South Tower, using his powerful voice to sing them down the smoke-clogged stairs and out of the building. Returning to hunt for possible stragglers, Rescorla died under 500,000 tons of steel and concrete.

Francesca Zambello, the director of "Heart of a Soldier" and an artistic adviser to the San Francisco Opera, as well as the general and artistic director of the Glimmerglass Festival, sensed the theatrical potential of Mr. Stewart's book immediately.


'Heart Of A Soldier': An Opera At The Heart Of Sept. 11 (Laura Sydell, 9/10/11, NPR)
A man saves thousands from a burning building, then goes back in to make sure he got everyone out. He dies, leaving behind the great love of his life. It might sound too dramatic to be real life, but it happened exactly 10 years ago this Sunday, at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Journalist James Stewart wrote a book about that man, called Heart of a Soldier, and now that book is the subject of a new opera, premiering Saturday in San Francisco.

In the weeks after the Twin Towers fell, Stewart was reporting about Wall Street for the New Yorker. Someone told him that Morgan Stanley, one of the firms with offices in the towers, had almost no casualties.

"That just kind of lodged in my mind as an oddity," Stewart recalls, "because so many other firms were either completely wiped out, nearly wiped out, horrible losses."

Stewart started asking around to find out why Morgan Stanley had been an exception. "Someone finally said, 'I think it was because there was this one guy who was in charge of security there who defied the order to stay in the tower and got everyone out.'"

That guy was Rick Rescorla, a Vietnam veteran with a long history of heroic deeds.

The deeper he dug the more incredible and sad Rescorla's story became to Stewart.

MORE:
The Real Heroes Are Dead: A love story (James B. Stewart, February 11, 2002, The New Yorker)

After the Rhodesian conflict ended, with the British withdrawal from Northern Rhodesia, Hill persuaded Rescorla to join him in the United States Army. He argued that the next major fight against Communism was shaping up in Vietnam.

Both Hill and Rescorla were fanatics about fitness and about survival skills. Rescorla may have told Susan that he was running barefoot as research for a play, but he had already been running barefoot in Africa, and then at Fort Dix, toughening his soles to the point where he could extinguish a fire with his bare feet. He told Hill that if he lost his boots in combat it wouldn't matter. This was something he'd absorbed from his years in Africa. "You should be able to strip a man naked and throw him out with nothing on him," he told Hill. By the end of the day, the man should be clothed and fed. By the end of the week, he should own a horse. And by the end of a year he should own a business and have money in the bank.

At Fort Dix, the two were immediately promoted to acting sergeant. They spent weekends together, with Hill's wife and two children. In their free time, they went on picnics and visited Revolutionary War battlefields. Hill considered himself something of a military historian, but he was no match for Rescorla, who, although he hadn't been to college, had read all fifty-one volumes of the Harvard Classics. He had memorized long stretches of Shakespeare and often quoted Churchill. When Rescorla became an American citizen, in 1967, Hill was at his side.

Both men were chosen for Officer Candidate School, and when they graduated, in 1965, Hill was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division, Rescorla to the Seventh Air Cavalry. Units of the two divisions were among the first ordered to Southeast Asia. Rescorla arrived in September; Hill followed in December. Rather than spend his first week of R. and R. in Hong Kong or Honolulu with the rest of his brigade, Hill opted to go straight to the Vietcong-controlled Central Highlands to fight with Rescorla, who was leading a mobile combat platoon.

The remote Ia Drang Valley, less than ten miles from the Cambodian border, was a Communist stronghold and a supply route for North Vietnamese forces in the south. In November of 1965, the American military command ordered Rescorla's unit, Bravo company of the Seventh Air Cavalry's 2nd Battalion, to the center of a hostile area to support a battalion surrounded by three regiments of hardened enemy troops--more than two thousand soldiers. Rescorla directed his men to dig foxholes and establish a defense perimeter. Exploring the hilly terrain beyond the perimeter, he came under enemy fire. After nightfall, he and his men endured waves of assault. To keep morale up, Rescorla led the men in military cheers and Cornish songs throughout the night.

The next morning, Rescorla took a patrol through the battlefield, searching for American dead and wounded. As he looked over a giant anthill, he encountered an enemy machine-gun nest. The startled North Vietnamese fired on him, and Rescorla hurled a grenade into the nest. There were no survivors.

Rescorla and Bravo company were evacuated by helicopter. The rest of the battalion marched to a nearby landing zone. On the way, they were ambushed, and Bravo company was again called in for relief. Only two helicopters made it through enemy fire. As the one carrying Rescorla descended, the pilot was wounded, and he started to lift up. Rescorla and his men jumped the remaining ten feet, bullets flying at them, and made it into the beleaguered camp. As Lieutenant Larry Gwin later recalled the scene, "I saw Rick Rescorla come swaggering into our lines with a smile on his face, an M-79 on his shoulder, his M-16 in one hand, saying, 'Good, good, good! I hope they hit us with everything they got tonight--we'll wipe them up.' His spirit was catching. The enemy must have thought an entire battalion was coming to help us, because of all our screaming and yelling."

Though Hill and Rescorla were nominally in separate units, at times they operated together. They made a formidable team. Hill had such a keen sense of the presence of enemy soldiers that Rescorla told him he was "better than an English pointer," Hill recalled. "If we got into trouble and hit something, he was the commander. He'd leave me at the base of the fire, and he'd maneuver into the enemy. We didn't even have to speak. We thought so much alike, he'd just nod or wink and I knew what he was going to do." To memorialize their close friendship, Rescorla bought matching Bowie knives with their names engraved on the blades, and Hill gave Rescorla a 9-mm Browning automatic pistol adorned with their division patches and initials.

Hill and Rescorla survived Vietnam, but many of their comrades did not. Three hundred and five died in the Ia Drang Valley alone, one of the heaviest losses ever sustained by a single American regiment. Many times, Rescorla cradled the bodies of his dying soldiers, speaking softly and reassuringly to them. "You're going to be all right," he promised, no matter how dire the situation. After a soldier died, Rescorla would cover his hands with the soldier's blood, in a sort of ritual. "He was terribly compassionate, unlike me," Hill recalled. "Rick died a little bit with every guy who died under his command."

The two friends returned to the United States after their tour of duty in Vietnam, and they roomed next door to each other at Fort Benning, Georgia. Rescorla left the military in 1968 for the University of Oklahoma. Inside the toughened military veteran, he insisted, was the soul of a writer. He had already started writing a novel, which he often discussed with Hill. He called it "Pegasus," and it was about a mobile-air-cavalry unit coming together, training, and going into combat. He was also interested in Westerns, and wrote several stories that were published in Western-themed magazines. But Hill thought the real reason Rescorla left the military was that he didn't want any more men to die in his arms.

Hill went back to Vietnam and stayed until 1969, specializing in guerrilla tactics and unconventional warfare, subjects that he had taught at Fort Benning. He retired from the Army in 1975, and moved to St. Augustine, where he ran a construction business and converted to Islam. He had begun studying the religion in 1958, in Lebanon, and had learned Arabic. With blond hair and blue eyes, he stood out at most mosques, but people thought he was from Nuristan, a region of Afghanistan whose inhabitants are known for their Nordic features.

Although Hill had left the Army, his heart was in combat. On two occasions in the nineteen-eighties, he fought, without pay, as a mujahid against the Soviets in Afghanistan, working with Ahmed Shah Massoud, the fighter who led the Northern Alliance forces until last September, when he was assassinated. Hill helped found the first mosque in Jacksonville, and taught Rescorla to speak Arabic. But his devotion to Islam had its limits. Several years ago, he took up smoking and drinking again.

After leaving Oklahoma, Rescorla moved to South Carolina, where he taught criminal justice at the University of South Carolina for three years and published a textbook on the subject. He left for higher-paying jobs in corporate security, joining Dean Witter in 1985. He moved to New Jersey and began commuting to Manhattan. Throughout these years, Hill and Rescorla remained close, speaking on the phone every other day, usually at around three-thirty in the afternoon, except when Hill was on a clandestine mission or couldn't get to a phone. Then he would write Rescorla long letters.
Rescorla's office at Dean Witter was in the World Trade Center. The firm, which merged with Morgan Stanley in 1997, eventually occupied twenty-two floors in the south tower, and several floors in a building nearby. Rescorla's office was on the forty-fourth floor of the south tower. Because of Hill's training in counterterrorism, in 1990 Rescorla asked him to come up and take a look at the security situation. "He knew I could be an evil-minded bastard," Hill recalls. At the World Trade Center, Rescorla asked him a simple question: "How would you take this out?" Hill looked around, and asked to see the basement. They walked down an entrance ramp into a parking garage; there was no visible security, and no one stopped them. "This is a soft touch," Hill said, pointing to a load-bearing column easily accessible in the middle of the space. "I'd drive a truck full of explosives in here, walk out, and light it off."

As a result of Hill's observations and his own, Rescorla arranged a meeting with a security official for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which managed the building. "They told Rick to kiss off," Hill recalled. "They told him, 'You lease your stories, you worry about that. The rest of the building is not your concern.' " (A Port Authority spokesman says that security "took into account all known threats at that time," and "was better than in most office buildings in New York.")

Less than three years later, on February 26, 1993, a truck bomb exploded in the basement of the World Trade Center. As soon as Rescorla got all of the company's employees out of the building, he called Hill. "Did you see what happened?" Hill had just seen the footage on TV. "Get your ass up here," Rescorla said. "I'll buy your ticket." Hill flew to New York, and began working as a consultant to Rescorla. He helped Rescorla do an analysis of the security measures at the Trade Center, and commented on drafts. When Rescorla and Hill began their work, no arrests had yet been made, but Rescorla suspected that the bomb had been planted by Muslims, probably Palestinians, or that an Iraqi colonel of engineers might have orchestrated the attack. Hill let his beard grow and visited several mosques in New Jersey, showing up at dawn for morning prayers. He fell into conversation, speaking fluent Arabic, taking an anti-American line and espousing pro-Islamic views. Radical anti-American and militant Islamic views weren't hard to coax out of his fellow-worshippers. His interviews formed the basis for much of Rescorla's analysis, which concluded that the attack was likely planned by a radical imam at a mosque in New York or New Jersey. The prediction proved uncannily accurate. Followers of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, a radical Muslim cleric in Brooklyn, were convicted of the bombing.

According to Hill, Rescorla concluded that because the World Trade Center was the tallest building in New York, situated at the heart of Wall Street, and a symbol of American economic might, it was likely to remain a target of anti-American militants. At Hill's urging, he told his superiors that, while the bombing of the Trade Center and numerous other recent acts of Islamic terrorism had been technologically unsophisticated, Muslim terrorists were showing increasing technological and tactical awareness, and were getting better. Hill's research had uncovered the existence of groups, connected to some of the New Jersey mosques, whose goal was to travel around talking to young people and recruiting the radicals among them.

Rescorla and Hill also sketched a scenario of what the next attack might look like. The city targeted might be New York, Washington, or Philadelphia, or even all three. Drawing on his research for the novel on the air-cavalry unit, Rescorla envisioned an air attack on the Twin Towers, probably an air-cargo plane travelling from the Middle East or Europe to Kennedy or Newark airport, loaded with explosives or chemical or biological weapons. Rescorla also discussed his theories with another close friend, Fred McBee, a fellow-writer he'd met at the University of Oklahoma. He told McBee that he'd spoken up at company board meetings about unconventional threats, such as "dirty" bombs, small "artillery nukes," and anthrax. He followed events in the Middle East closely. "He assumed that it would be the terrorists' mission to bring the Trade Center down," McBee said.

Rescorla concluded that the company should leave the World Trade Center and build quarters in New Jersey, preferably a three- or four-story complex spread over a large area. He pointed out that many employees already commuted from New Jersey and would welcome the change. He warned that Manhattan's limited bridge and tunnel connections meant that it could be easily cut off, and transportation and communications disrupted. Moreover, the World Trade Center space was expensive compared with real estate in the suburbs.

The World Trade Center lease didn't expire until 2006, however.



Posted by at September 11, 2011 6:10 AM
  

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