WJ Editorial

Remembering The 9/11 Boatlift

On the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, many events around the country are being held to commemorate the horrific, but also heroic, events of 9/11.

The story of the brave responders at Ground Zero, many of whom suffered lifelong health complications from the toxic materials at the site, is well-known.

One of the less-well-remembered stories is the unprecedented, spontaneously organized boatlift that rescued thousands of Manhattan residents trapped on the island’s southern tip.

When the Twin Towers collapsed, they covered Lower Manhattan in a cloud of thick, choking, toxic dust. The lower part of the island was without power, since one of the collapsing towers had sliced a subterranean power line. The streets were filled with bewildered people wondering what had happened. Many of them converged on the wharfs and piers.

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That’s when the orderly movement of people turned into panic. One tugboat captain recalls dust-covered people emerging “like zombies” from the dust cloud. They were desperate to leave.

All bridges, tunnels and land connections between Manhattan and the outside world were closed. For the first time in more than a century, water provided the only connections to and from the island.

On their own initiative, and without waiting for instructions, tugboat captains made their way to the piers and began removing people to safety across the harbor. The U.S. Coast Guard put out a call for any boats available to help.

What followed was the largest boat evacuation in history, with more than 800 mariners on 150 watercraft of all types rescuing more than 500,000 people in a 9-hour period—more than the 339,000 British and French soldiers rescued from Dunkirk during World War II over nine days.

The rescue vessels included passenger ferries, tugboats, merchant ships, private vessels, and New York City Fire Department and Police Department boats.

Several documentary films have been made about the boatlift, including one by the U.S. Department of Transportation and another one narrated by actor Tom Hanks.

On September 10, a ceremony and boat procession in New York harbor honored the victims of 9/11 and the mariners who “headed out into the unknown” to rescue the stranded survivors.

The event was hosted by the American Maritime Partnership, New York Council of the Navy League, Transportation Institute, Towboat and Harbor Carriers Association, Passenger Vessel Association, Port Authority of NY/NJ, Sandy Hook Pilots, and Seamen’s Church Institute.

United States Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and the Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, Admiral Karl L. Schultz, headed up the list of distinguished speakers.

The commemoration comes shortly after Hurricane Ida, when mariners once again are assisting in rescues, as they do after every natural disaster.

It’s a welcome and fitting tribute to the victims, but also to the precious asset of our nation’s maritime men and women. During crises they step forward to play an outsized role time and time again, from moving vital military equipment during World War II, to the “Cajun navy” assisting the Coast Guard after Hurricane Katrina, to the boat evacuations of 9/11. They show the best of America.