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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.
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.
The North Tower was hit by a jet traveling at over 700 kilometers (440 miles) an hour, and the resulting explosion on the tower’s 80th floor killed hundreds inside the building instantly.
Debris began to fall from the sky. The event was understandably traumatic, but there was still a sense of control within the city. After the South Tower’s 60th floor was struck at 869 km/h (540 mph), this time with the tragedy caught on live television around the world and the streets below both towers being pelted with shrapnel, uneasy feelings officially turned into panic.
After the towers fell, choking clouds of dust and toxins were blown over Lower Manhattan leaving survivors near the blast site, according to eyewitnesses, looking “like zombies.”
Manhattan being an island made getting people safely away from the epicenter of what we now call Ground Zero a daunting task. The mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani, didn’t have much to offer when he spoke during a press conference two hours after the towers fell.
“If you are south of Canal Street, get out. Walk slowly and carefully,” he said. “If you can’t figure what else to do, just walk north.”
Those that did find themselves on the northern side of the towers made their way by foot to the Brooklyn Bridge, their only way off the island due to the closure of the subway (with power outages throughout the underground system and passengers having to walk through darkened tunnels to the surface).
South of the towers in Lower Manhattan, there weren’t many options. The Brooklyn Tunnel had already been shut down.
All streets were either blocked by debris or closed by authorities to make room for the non-stop stream of emergency crews, making an escape by vehicle impossible. At the southernmost end of the island, the only thing thousands of Manhattanites and visitors to the city flocking to the 25 acres of available real estate known as Battery Park had in front of them was the Hudson River on one side and the East River on the other.
As the tragedy unfolded in front of them from the relative safety of the water, civilian captains piloted ferries to the sea walls built along the southern edge of Manhattan and began loading them with as many people as possible.
In places along the shoreline, the scared and shocked huddled masses were ten deep. Some of these survivors had been enveloped by the post-explosion dust storm and came to the water’s edge looking more like “gray ghosts.” Over shouts from captains, ship workers and police on the scene, those flocking to the approaching boats were urged to remain calm and to help those that were in need of it.
For the first few hours after the unthinkable had decimated their city, the efforts from the water were spearheaded by New Yorkers simply reacting to what needed to be done. With that, the 9/11 boatlift began.
“All available boats, this is the United States Coast Guard….” Those were the words the U.S. Coast Guard used in their initial radio message asking for assistance as they took control of organizing evacuation efforts.
That call was sent out to all ships in the vicinity, requesting them to converge on the New York Harbor and Battery Park to begin transporting as many people as they could to safety. As more than 800 mariners scrambled to help, desperation had seized some of those waiting on the shore. People began jumping into the water in panicked attempts to swim to approaching boats. Remarkably, not a single drowning was reported.
Some of the first to answer the call were dozens of tugboat crews, normally busy guiding larger vessels through the many ports along the southern rim of the island.
Under the watchful gaze of the Statue of Liberty, over 150 ferries, tugs, Coast Guard ships and privately owned recreational boats worked together to shuttle half a million people to Staten Island, Ellis Island and New Jersey. Speaking to CNN in August of 2017, NYPD officer Tyrone Powell had this to say about the extent of the harborfront rescue efforts put forth by himself and hundreds of others:
“We had like Noah’s Ark. We had everybody on that boat. We had animals. We had babies without parents. Everybody was covered in soot.” And that half-million number is more people than live in the entire city of St. Louis, in case you were wondering.
It’s also more than the number of Allied troops evacuated during Operation Dynamo in the early days of World War Two. Often referred to as the Miracle of Dunkirk, this wartime operation saw civilian and navy vessels being called into action to help rescue soldiers trapped along the beaches of the French city of Dunkirk as German forces moved to surround them. That impressive operation saved the lives of over 330,000 men, but unlike the boatlift on September 11, it took nine days.
The makeshift New York rescue fleet accomplished their feat in just nine hours. Granted, they weren’t being shot at, but they were dealing with white-out conditions thanks to massive amounts of dust blown their way. Captains of the rescue boats are on record as describing dust clouds so thick that at times even their radar was blocked and rendered useless.
Boats on the water were also vital in shuttling personnel to Ground Zero and bringing in supplies, not just immediately after the attacks but for two years into the cleaning and rebuilding stages.
NYC fireboats were used to pump river water to firefighters battling flames at Ground Zero and the surrounding buildings after water mains were rendered inoperable as portions of Manhattan’s infrastructure collapsed. Ships were turned into floating cafeterias and used to house emergency personnel.
“With the New York Harbor challenges of 9/11 itself where we took 500,000 people off the south end of Manhattan to safety and that was just the Coast Guard and the whole maritime community of the Port of New York and New Jersey, standing up and recognizing what needed to be done,” explained U.S. Coast Guard Admiral James Loy, Commandant at the time of the 9/11 attacks during an interview with Coast Guard Compass.
“We grabbed the Staten Island Ferry, the tour boat that goes around the Statue of Liberty and anything else that floated. And at the same time, we had rallied the wherewithal to take a half a million people, scared and frightened to death, through the Battery and off the southern tip of Manhattan. That’s an extraordinary story.”
It is an amazing story, but as the years go by those who took to the water and put others’ safety ahead of their own on September 11, 2001, are paying the price. The hours (and in many cases, days) of inhaling dust from the 9/11 wreckage has meant health issues for hundreds of emergency workers. Estimated numbers are 120 ship captains and boat workers being registered with the World Trade Center Health Program suffering from conditions ranging from asthma to cancer.
That Tuesday in New York was a horrific moment of unbelievable cruelty and loss, but like so many events that sprung from the day’s despair, the 9/11 boatlift showcased that from acts of destruction can come shining examples of self-sacrifice in the name of not just community, but humanity,
- Attack on America: September 11, 2001 and the U.S. Coast Guard
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- Operation Dynamo at Dunkirk ends
- What We Know About How 9/11 Has Affected New Yorkers’ Health
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