Superman Treatment for a Real-Life Hero

By Diane Brady


A Story of Love, Heroism,

and September 11th

By James B. Stewart

Simon & Schuster -- 321pp -- $24

Of all those who perished in the World Trade Center attacks, Rick Rescorla may be the most celebrated. The Morgan Stanley Dean Witter chief of security supervised the evacuation of many of the firm's 2,700 employees while building officials were advising them to stay put. Then Rescorla went back to check for stragglers and never reappeared, leaving behind a new wife whom he had described as the love of his life. The poignant tale has been widely chronicled in print and on TV, and now, James B. Stewart has expanded his February New Yorker profile into a book. The result, Heart of a Soldier, is an engrossing volume, though the tone borders on hero worship.

Stewart, author of a best-selling exposé of Wall Street's insider-trading scandals, Den of Thieves, builds his story around the intersecting lives of three main characters--Rescorla, best buddy Dan Hill, and wife Susan Greer. Rescorla, 62 at the time of his death, certainly is a worthy protagonist. As a young man, he served with Her Majesty's army in Cyprus and the colonial police in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), excelled at sports, and was said to be a magnet for women. He emigrated to the U.S. in the early 1960s with the intention of joining the U.S. military, and after Officer Candidate School, he was sent to Vietnam as a platoon leader. There, his outfit stood out, taking the most dangerous missions and earning the nickname "Hard Corps." Rescorla's Vietnam exploits became so legendary that they were recounted in the 1992 best-seller We Were Soldiers Once...And Young by retired Lieutenant General Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway.

Hill is equally interesting. A working-class kid from Chicago, in 1961 he fought as a mercenary in the Congo's breakaway Katanga province--really, he says, he was working undercover for the U.S. military. A narrow escape into Northern Rhodesia led to his meeting Rescorla. His Vietnam War deeds were also valorous, earning him numerous medals. Later, Hill converted to Islam and joined the mujahideen in their battle to oust the Soviets from Afghanistan. Years prior to the September 11 attacks, Hill even sought FBI support for a proposed assassination of Osama bin Laden.

If all this sounds like the makings of a boy's adventure serial--well, the book is a bit like that. Stewart presents a gushing portrayal of Rescorla and Hill, even noting that it's been "an honor and privilege to work on a story of such breadth." This tone likely stems from the fact that, aside from Rescorla's own writings, Stewart's main sources were Hill and Greer. There are also frequent, melodramatic hints of the supernatural: "I hope you won't find this strange," Rescorla says to Hill at one point, "but I feel like I've known you before." Later, as September 11 approaches, Susan Greer "just couldn't shake a mounting sense of tension and dread."

All the same, it's clear that Rescorla was an extraordinary, often prescient figure. With his military career at an end, in the late 1970s he moved to Chicago and became director of security for Continental Illinois National Bank & Trust Co. There, in addition to developing a system that eliminated robberies during his tenure, Rescorla ferreted out an executive engaged in unethical practices. Over a decade later, after joining Dean Witter, Rescorla warned authorities prior to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing that the structure's underground parking area could be vulnerable to terrorists. Eight years later, he warned of possible air attacks--and apparently foresaw the collapse of the towers before anyone else. All warnings were ignored.

In Stewart's account, Greer comes off as less accomplished than the men. A marriage to her high school sweetheart ends amid financial woes and infidelity. A second marriage leads to 13 years "in a quiet state of desperation" before she strikes out on her own. In 1998, as she is walking her dog, Rescorla, the man of her dreams, makes contact as he jogs by--and later asks her out. "We both knew this was forever," Stewart quotes her as saying. "Just as if the Earth had stopped rotating." The great romance, of course, was cut short by Rescorla's death.

Stewart's account of the September 11 events is gripping. When the first plane hit, Rescorla was on the 44th floor of the second tower. He ignored suggestions that the danger was contained to the other building, and, according to survivors, began directing Morgan Stanley personnel down the stairs. "Be silent, be calm," he told the panicky crowd, speaking in a reassuring voice over his bullhorn. During the evacuation, he also made contact via cell phone with both Hill and his wife, telling them he was O.K. On the 10th floor, Rescorla assured a colleague that he, too, would leave once he knew that all his co-workers were out. Then, along with other security personnel, he went back upstairs to make a final sweep.

With Americans eager to humanize the tragedy, Stewart's book will likely become a hit in spite of its sentimentalism and hagiographic tendencies. And even if Rescorla in the flesh couldn't live up to Stewart's superman--who could?--he was a courageous guy who, like many on that day, put others' lives ahead of his own. That's enough to earn him this heartfelt elegy.

Brady covered the September 11 events from New York.

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