Rick Riscorla found himself facing one of those life challenges that sooner or later find us all. He had been diagnosed with cancer. Still a young and energetic man of 60, Riscorla didn’t like the prospects of losing his life in a gradual battle of attrition to the disease. This was not the way he wanted to go.
Riscorla was a “man’s man”. Born in England he had been a record setting shot-putter in high school as well as an avid boxer. He served in the Parachute Regiment of the British army, then as an officer on the London police force. He had grown up idolizing the United States military, so left London for the U.S. where he ultimately enlisted in the Army. As a platoon leader in the newly formed airborne Cavalry, Riscorla saw action and distinguished himself in the famous battle of the Ia Drang Valley in the early stages of the Vietnam War.
Known to his men as “Hard Core” and to his commander, Lieutenant General Hal Moore as “the best platoon leader I ever saw”, Riscorla garnered a Silver Star, Bronze Star, Oak Leaf Cluster, Purple Heart, and Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry.
Now, as the new millenium began, he found himself facing a prospect almost unimaginable for a man of his intense passion and adventure. He didn’t fear the cancer. He only feared that the cancer would dictate his exit from life in a way so foreign to the way he had lived.
“Look at us”, he wrote a friend, “We should have died performing some great deed—go out in a blaze of glory, not end up with someone spoon-feeding us and changing our (diapers).”
He fought the cancer into remission after being told in 1998 that he had but six months to live. He continued his work as the head of security for Dean Witter and Morgan Stanley, headquartered in the World Trade Center. Everyone who worked there knew Rick Riscorla. Following the terrorist attack of 1993, he told anyone who listened that “they” (the terrorists) would be back. He planned for it. He developed a procedure for getting all the employees he was responsible for out of the building as quickly and as orderly as possible. He ran drill after drill after drill to make sure they understood the routine.
On September 11, 2001, all the planning and training and drilling paid off. As the Twin Towers burned in the aftermath of the devastating terrorist attacks, Riscorla provided guidance, inspiration, and quiet, steady leadership in getting his people to safety. Confident he had everyone out, Riscorla returned to the burning building and was last seen on the 10th floor still leading, still comforting, still inspiring. Almost prophetically, he died as he had wished; performing a great deed. In all, over 3000 people died in the attacks of that day, yet only 6 of the 2700 in Rick Riscorla’s care perished.
The life and philosophy of men like Rick Riscorla could best be described in a poem by Jack London;
“I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.”
As I am often reminded, there are things worse than death. Living with no grace, no purpose, and no passion is one of them. Rick Riscorla knew that. So he lived life with grace. He lived life with passion. He lived life with purpose.
And he died the same way.