9/11 Boatlift: The Largest Marine Evacuation in History

If it floated, it was needed. Half a million New Yorkers were rescued by a Coast Guard-led fleet of tugboats and yachts. When disaster strikes, ordinary Americans help fellow citizens.

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Way back in 1776, George Washington found himself in the midst of the Battle of Long Island against 32,000 British troops. Unfortunately for the future first president of the United States and his men, it was a fight they would not win. As the assault wore on, the British began to make their final move, hoping to surround the remaining 9,000 colonists.
Washington ordered his men, bruised and bloodied, into the water. A slow but steady evacuation began from Long Island to Manhattan, one rowboat at a time. For 225 years it stood as the largest boat evacuation on American soil (or should we say water?) in the country’s history. Until September 11, 2001, when New York City’s Twin Towers fell, and all hell broke loose.

On that particular Tuesday in New York’s borough of Manhattan, the ever-bustling hub and historical heart of America’s largest city, things went from relative calm to complete chaos in 18 minutes.

That’s the amount of time between the first hijacked plane, a Boeing 767, hitting the North Tower at 8:46 am, and a second plane (also a Boeing 767) striking the South Tower. The two aircraft had taken off from Boston’s Logan International Airport 15 minutes apart and were both scheduled to land at Los Angeles International Airport on daily commuter routes. What was initially thought by emergency crews on the ground to be a tragic accident involving a single aircraft quickly escalated into the realization that a full-scale attack was in progress once the second 767 crashed into its target.

AP:
Smoke fills the sky above Lower Manhattan after the attacks.

Within minutes of that initial tower strike, part of a 19-man al Qaeda operation targeting three different locations on U.S. soil and involving three hijacked American Airlines flights (along with United Airlines Flight 93), all of Lower Manhattan was in a transportation lockdown. Not knowing if this was an attack or if there might be a land-based threat imminent, all forms of mass transit within New York City’s third most-populated borough were immediately ground to a halt as a precaution.