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.

Way back in 1776, George Washington found himself in the midst of the Battle of Long Island against 32,000 British troops, and 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 (and 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 day 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 plane, a Boeing 767, hitting the North Tower, and a second plane (also a Boeing 767) striking the South Tower.  What was initially thought to be a tragic accident involving a single aircraft quickly escalated into the realization that a full-scale attack was in progress when the second 767 crashed into its target.

Smoke fills the sky above Lower Manhattan after the attacks.

Manhattan being an island made getting people safely away from the epicenter of the attack 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 attacks.  “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.

Screen capture from Boatlift: An Untold Tale of 9/11 Resilience (see video below).
Screen capture from Boatlift: An Untold Tale of 9/11 Resilience (see video below).

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 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.

911 Boatlift
125 boats moved 500,000 people off the island walls in eight hours on 9/11.

So there it was: sink, swim or find something that could float-preferably a boat.  The U.S. Coast Guard took control and put a call out to all ships in the vicinity to converge on the New York Harbor and Battery Park and begin transporting as many people as they could.

Some of the first to answer 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 125 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.  That’s more people than live in the entire city of St. Louis, in case you were wondering.

“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.”

Selected Sources