9/11: 20 years later

Escape From New York

The great maritime rescue of lower Manhattan on 9/11.

Photo: United States Coast Guard
Photo: United States Coast Guard

On that bright-blue morning 20 years ago, Coast Guard lieutenant Michael Day was at his office on Staten Island, looking out over lower Manhattan. Day was a relatively junior officer whose job entailed safety and navigation oversight of the New York waterways, helping to coordinate anchorages and channel markers. He also dealt with all the odd questions that crop up in the congested rivers and harbor of one of the largest cities in the world, like charity swims and the Macy’s Fourth of July fireworks. The Coast Guard had negotiated with the Mets when their new stadium lights blinded mariners, and had to tell David Letterman that, no, he could not launch watermelons across the Hudson toward New Jersey.

It hardly seemed a job destined for history. When it came knocking, in fact, he didn’t recognize it. In the minutes after 8:46 a.m., Day had the same thought so many Americans did: What an odd accident. Likely a small plane — maybe a helicopter. He watched CNN for a few moments, then went back to his desk and kept working. Every so often, he’d glance over his shoulder at the plume of smoke visible out the window, but he wasn’t alarmed. He’d worked in the Twin Towers in his previous job with the Port Authority and everyone knew how robust they were — the legend was that they could withstand a Boeing 707 crashing into them. Whatever had happened, it was not a job for the Coast Guard.

Then the second plane hit. And the chaos began.

Over the hours ahead, Day and his maritime colleagues at the Sandy Hook Pilots Association — the specially licensed seamen who help larger vessels get in and out of the harbor safely — would help orchestrate the largest maritime evacuation in world history, larger even than the famous British rescue at Dunkirk.

With no plan and little direction, they would cobble together a makeshift civilian armada of fishing vessels, pleasure yachts, tugboats, and passenger ferries that evacuated somewhere between 300,000 and 500,000 people from the tip of lower Manhattan — desperate, worried, dust-enveloped people trapped by the closure of the island’s bridges and tunnels. Today, the maritime boatlift and evacuation of lower Manhattan remains one of the least-known dramas of that day — perhaps the greatest (mostly) unknown story of 9/11.

In that first hour, the morning kept turning from bad to worse. The collapse of the South Tower and the ensuing cloud of debris rendered the Coast Guard’s harbor radar blind. Reports began to come in of panicked crowds piling up along the Battery.

Day decided to head into Manhattan himself. He met up with a Sandy Hook pilot at a nearby dock, and with the crew of the Pilots Association’s main station boat, the 184-foot New York, they steamed toward lower Manhattan. The scene looked almost biblical as they drew closer, with gray smoke hanging over the Hudson. This, Day recalls thinking, is Pearl Harbor. “You could just see everyone on the piers,” Day told a Coast Guard historian in 2002. “It was just wall-to-wall people.”

By the time the New York arrived at the Battery, some boats were already beginning to ferry people away. It was clear to Day and the Sandy Hook pilots as they nosed around the southern edge of Manhattan that the scale of the ad hoc effort was being dwarfed by the swarms of evacuees. Some ended up in the water, jumping for safety amid fears of further collapses. Others fell off the side amid the confusion.

At midmorning, they called for help — lots of help. As Day told me, “We decided to make the call on the radio: ‘All available boats, this is the United States Coast Guard aboard the pilot boat, New York. Anyone available to help with the evacuation of lower Manhattan, report to Governors Island.’” The Coast Guard Vessel Traffic Service for New York — the equivalent of the harbor’s air traffic controllers — put out a similar call. New York’s mariners answered, and within 15 to 20 minutes, the horizon began to fill with boats of all shapes, sizes, and functions.

The flotilla that day included upwards of 130 boats: harbor launches, fishing vessels, sightseeing ships, and dinner-cruise boats, as well as 33 ferries and 50 tugboats, plus numerous FDNY, NYPD, and Coast Guard rescue boats. An NYPD Marine officer, Keith Duvall, had even commandeered a pleasure yacht from the North Cove Marina: “Rich people always leave the keys in the boat,” Duvall told a fellow officer. Sure enough, after finding the keys, Duvall and his colleagues made ten trips to Jersey and back over the course of the day.

For hours, Day and the Sandy Hook pilots played traffic cop, ushering boats in and out of the Battery seawall, the marinas, Pier 11, and Wall Street Terminal. The harbor was so crowded with vessels that Day and the Sandy Hook pilots switched to communicating with boats by hand signals — the radio channels were too overloaded for the finesse needed to navigate safely. Waves of boats came in empty, loaded up, and moved back out.

At one point, someone suggested emptying North Cove Marina of the rest of the fancy yachts docked there. Day gulped and gave the go-ahead, watching as tugboats pulled out one multimillion-dollar vessel after another. Oh boy, I hope I’m doing the right thing, he thought.

“I broke more rules that day than probably I’ve enforced in my whole Coast Guard career,” Day said later. “We authorized a lot of regulations to be broken.” A Staten Island ferry, for example, which normally handles 5,200 passengers, left on one trip carrying over 6,000. Day was amazed at how naturally people reacted to authority — any authority. At one point, a diesel barge pulled up at the seawall to begin refueling fire trucks that were tirelessly throwing water on the still-burning blazes at ground zero. A city official tried to protest that the barge needed a permit; Day intervened, making it up as he went along, announcing, “This is a Coast Guard operation and I’m telling you that it’s authorized right now.” The official readily accepted the explanation and left.

The volunteer crews began to hang banners from their bows with their intended destination — Brooklyn, Staten Island, New Jersey — but mostly they found people eager to leave to wherever. “All I wanted to do was get off that island,” said Heather Ordover, a teacher at the High School for Leadership and Public Service, which was located in the shadow of the towers. “I joked with a teacher I had never wanted to go to Staten Island so badly.”

The evacuation stretched for blocks, with some people waiting more than three hours for a ride. Every boat seemed to pull away overcrowded. “It was like being the last lifeboat on the Titanic,” ferry captain Rick Thornton recounted later to writer Jessica DuLong.

Many of the evacuating boats carried away injured victims. Day and other officials tried to coordinate where ambulances were staged in New Jersey, Staten Island, and elsewhere. “We were getting calls from cell phones, sporadic,” he said. “I can remember Ellis Island saying, ‘We’ve got 40-odd ambulances lined up — bring them over here.’ And then hearing someone else, ‘We’ve got them over here in Brooklyn. We’ve got ambulances waiting. Bring them over here.’”

When evacuees pulled away from lower Manhattan, they got their first glimpse of the changed skyline behind them — and that’s when they understood the enormity of the attacks. Frank Razzano, who that morning had been staying in the Marriott Hotel nestled between the Twin Towers, recalled how he hadn’t even understood that the buildings had completely fallen. “As we were going across the river, I was looking back at the city, expecting to see the World Trade Center — expecting to see a tower with the top off. They weren’t there,” he said later. “I said to the guy driving the boat, ‘Where is the World Trade Center?’ He said, ‘Buddy, they’re gone.’ I said, ‘Look, I was there when the tops of the buildings came down, but where’s the rest of the building?’ He said, ‘Buddy, it wasn’t the tops of the buildings. They collapsed down to the foundations.’”

As lower Manhattan gradually emptied boat by boat, the mission of the boatlift shifted. Instead of bringing people out, by around 4:30 p.m. the flotilla began to bring rescuers and supplies in from New Jersey. “We started getting calls that supplies were coming into Jersey and all the bridges were shut down into Manhattan,” Day said. “They said, ‘Hey, can we get someone to pick up some supplies?’ I asked if anyone would mind going over to Colgate in New Jersey and picking up some supplies, and I was inundated. ‘Sure, I’ll do it.’ ‘I’ll do it.’ ‘I’ll do it.’ Great. It wasn’t my intent — it just kind of happened.”

As the hours passed, and the needs grew, the supplies multiplied — bottled water, acetylene for steel cutting, oxygen, wrenches, meals. At one point, Day saw a request from New York City officials for 20,000 body bags.

This Herculean effort went largely unnoticed by the media on 9/11 itself, and it was only in subsequent months and years that many people realized the boatlift had happened at all. Two books have been published about the effort: Jessica DuLong’s Dust to Deliverance and Mike Magee’s All Available Boats, and for the tenth anniversary of the attacks, director Eddie Rosenstein put together a short, 11-minute documentary, narrated by Tom Hanks, about the event. (DuLong’s book has been reissued for the 20th anniversary under the title Saved at the Seawall.)

More recently, Spike Lee featured the tale of the boatlift in his HBO documentary, NYC Epicenters 9/11-> 2021½, having learned about it through DuLong’s book. Lee is hardly alone in coming late to the evacuation; most Americans I speak to still don’t know about it at all.

I’ve spent much of the last decade writing about 9/11, and the boatlift still stands out as one of the most illustrative threads of the day. First, it is an example of an event that, on any other day in American history, would rank as among the most dramatic in American history. But like the air traffic controllers who urgently landed 4,500 planes nationwide, or Vice-President Dick Cheney mustering the U.S. government’s response from the bunker underneath the White House, the maritime evacuation of lower Manhattan was initially unnoticed under the enormous calamity of the attacks.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the boatlift is the largest-scale example of what to me is the ultimately hopeful legacy of 9/11: that in reaction to the worst evil mankind can offer, Americans of all stripes that morning came together to help. “There was a common purpose,” Day said. “It was very clear what the purpose was — what we were trying to accomplish — we were trying to get people out of there.”

Late that evening, Lieutenant Day and the Sandy Hook pilots walked into lower Manhattan for the first time. The devastation awed him, Day told me earlier this month. “There are papers coming down — there’s always like snow, from the white ash, whenever a breeze would come up,” he said. He paused, considering the buildings that he’d once worked in. “Unrecognizable.”

But most of all, he remembers in the dark of that night near ground zero, with the power off and fires burning all around, the chirping emergency PASS alarms from scores of firefighters buried in the rubble. In a day where his efforts had helped rescue the population of a midsize city, the sound that haunts him is that of all the people who weren’t saved.

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