Friday, September 11, 2009

SEPTEMBER 11, 2001 + 8

Once again Project 2996 honors the victims of the September 11 terrorist attack on America.

Project 2996 was conceived by Dale Challener Roe, who has tried to repeat the tribute annually over the years. I haven't been part of it since 2006, but I decided to play my part again this year, by repeating my tribute to Jack Aron, and taking on couple of others. The Project assigned me another WTC victim, John Thomas McErlean, and I requested the opportunity to pay tribute to Rick Rescorla.

In 2006 I volunteered to write a tribute to one victim, and was privileged to be introduced to
Jack Charles Aron, who died in the offices of Marsh & McLennan in Tower 1 of the World Trade Center. A man I had never met or even heard of before was brought to fleeting life again through the words of his friends, colleagues, and family -- my contribution was to collect and sift through them to bring his portrait into focus. He left behind him a wife, Evelyn, a son Timmy, who is now a young man of 19, and a host of heartbroken friends and relatives. He was one of 295 employees of Marsh & McLennan whose lives were taken that day.

Beth McErlean was looking forward to celebrating her 14th anniversary on September 12th. In 1987 she had married John Thomas McErlean, a high-school sweetheart, now father of her four children and a vice-president and partner at the brokerage firm Cantor Fitzgerald. But when her anniversary day dawned, her husband was missing and presumed dead, his office having fallen from its lofty perch on the top floors of World Trade Center 1 into a disintegrated chaos of twisted metal, ash, and fire.

John McErlean had survived the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993. On that day he had carried a woman down 80 flights of stairs. No one knows what he was doing when he met his end in 2001, but his brother Tom figures he was probably engaged in the same sort of service to others.

John Thomas McErlean Jr., a handsome, dark-haired and square-jawed Irishman, grew up in Larchmount, New York. He formed an attachment to that community which drew him there to bring up his own family. He attended Iona, the Catholic boys prep school run by the Irish Christian Brothers in New Rochelle, and then St. Michael's College in Vermont, where he earned his business degree.

In the turbulent years since 9-11, the public has been forced to endure the foul spewings of wretches who need not be named, to the effect that those who died in the towers were symbols rather than human beings, that they represented all the grotesquerie and rapaciousness of American society, even to the extent that they were "little Eichmanns".

Imagine how such a slander would sit upon the relatives of a John McErlean, whose life outside of Manhattan's financial centre made room for being an athlete, a sailor, a coach of children's sports teams, and active member of St. Augustine's Parish. He spent his last summer vacation on Nantucket, flying kites, riding bikes, and building beachside bonfires. John bought a t-shirt that was corny, but whose motto spoke what was for him a profound truth: "Life is Good". "It seems so simple," he said, "but it's true. I've been blessed with a wonderful family and everything I wanted from life." He was 39 years old.

John's son Ryan is now 19, son Timothy 17, daughters Mary and Allie 16 and 12. In their sorrow they have known the generosity of the Larchmont/Mamaroneck Friends in Need organization, which has supported them and, in their mother's words, helped to "remind us all that there is much more good in our world than evil."

Of the nearly 3,000 people who were murdered on September 11 in all three locations, 658 of them were employees of Cantor Fitzgerald -- every single employee who happened to be at his or her desk that morning; the handful who were late, or on vacation, or going about their business out of the office that morning were the only ones left from the entire New York head office. It has been a long road back.

Nearly 3,000 people died on September 11. If not for the heroism of one man, that figure might well have been DOUBLED.

I refer, of course, to the indispensable
Rick Rescorla, British/American soldier, hero of Ia Drang at Landing Zone X-Ray in Vietnam, and roly-poly oracle managing security for Dean Witter/Morgan Stanley, who had predicted BOTH World Trade Center bombings (predictions to the Port Authority obviously falling on deaf ears).

You've seen his picture --the iconic pose [taken by the once-reputable and Pulitzered CNN veteran Peter Arnett] on the cover of the best-selling military history, We Were Soldiers Once...and Young, by General Hal Moore, (made into a thrilling film starring Mel Gibson as Moore -- Rescorla is not mentioned in the film despite his key role in the book -- not quite enough room for two heroes!) The book gives an account of a pivotal battle in 1965, which marked the escalation of U.S. involvement in Vietnam to real all-out war.

It is almost pointless to try and memorialize Rick Rescorla, to pile word upon word after all the words which have been written, by people far closer to Rescorla's reality than myself. I've learned most of what I know about him from military blogs like Mudville Gazette [excellent video there] and Blackfive. There are numerous websites devoted to him and his story -- his many stories, since the several phases of his career are each worth their own book. The skeleton of the history goes thus:

Born: 1939 Hayle, Cornwall, the old Celtic kingdom at the far southwest reach of England.

British Service: 1956-1963 Paratrooper, Cyprus and Northern Rhodesia

American Service: 1963-1990 Colonel, U.S. Army, 1st Cavalry Division
I saw Rick Rescorla come swaggering into our lines with a smile on his face . . . saying, ‘Good, good, good. I hope they hit us with everything they’ve got tonight. We’ll wipe them up,’ " recalled Lt. Larry Gwinn in the 1993 book, We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young. Rick took a bullet in the arm and fought for six hours before the battle he called "a long, bloody traffic accident in the jungle" ended.

More than 300 men died at Ia Drang. Rick earned a Silver Star, a Purple Heart and Bronze Stars for Valor and Meritorious Service..."We were flown away," Rick said to the authors [of We Were Soldiers] "but the stench of the dead would stay with me for years after the battle." [more here]
Security work:
1985 -- joined Morgan Stanley to manage and advise on corporate security

1990 -- concluded from a security review of the WTC that it was vulnerable to terrorist attack, most likely a truck bomb in its underground parking garage

1993 --predictions fulfilled -- Rescorla "jumped on a desk in the middle of the firm and threatened to drop his pants if his people didn't chill out and listen. In the stunned silence that followed, he launched an orderly evacuation, refusing to leave until the entire tower was empty." Following this attack he became convinced that there would be another, more deadly, probably involving airplanes. He advised his employers to move their offices to New Jersey, but they were not persuaded.

September 11, 2001 -- After the north WTC tower was hit by an airplane, Rick Rescorla initiated a timely evacuation (punctuated by his bouts of folksongs and patriotic anthems through a bullhorn) of thousands of Morgan Stanley employees from the south WTC tower, ignoring assurances from the Port Authority that his people were safe and need not move. He went back and back again, to clear as much of the building as he could, for long enough that there are at least a dozen stories of "sightings" and phone calls made while he did his duty protecting his charges. In the end he went in for a last round-up, and was not seen again.

Rick Rescorla was one of only SIX Morgan Stanley employees who did not survive on 9/11. He saved the lives of nearly 2,700 people in the south tower. [Another 1,000 from Building 5 also evacuated safely at his order.]

Rick Rescorla gave his life doing what he had always done, with the dedication and skill he had acquired during his military career. Many of his fellow soldiers have signed on to the effort to award him the Congressional Medal of Honor, for which he is technically ineligible because he had retired from the reserves and did not die in military service.

Surely he is a proper candidate for America's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In any case, the living recipients of the Congressional Medal
awarded him their own honor, the Above And Beyond Citizen's Medal, in March of 2009.

Other military personnel have honoured Rescorla in their own way. FOB Rescorla (forward operating base) was established near Farah, Afghanistan. Blending the sublime and the ridiculous, in a way that the honoree would no doubt appreciate, a fitting mural decorates one of the FOB latrines.

Likewise, a beautiful bronze statue, based on Arnett's photograph, has been unveiled at the National Infantry Museum at Ft. Benning Georgia.

Heroes come in all shapes and sizes and vocations. The heroism of a man like Rick Rescorla deserves monuments and wide public recognition. But every good father is a hero to his children, and does heroic service to society by being just that. We throw that word "hero" around a little promiscuously, even as applied to the victims of 9/11. I count myself lucky to be given the opportunity to salute and remember on this day three men who seem to me to deserve that title, for services large and small.

Jack, John, Rick -- in your name, and for all the others

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning
We will remember them.
[For the Fallen, Laurence Binyon, September 1914]