(Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt of BOATLIFT, a documentary short form video produced by Eddie Rosenstein and Eyepop that will premiere at the 9/11 Tenth Anniversary Summit in Washington, D.C. on September 8, 2011. View the video online here.).
NEW YORK — When fire and smoke filled the skies over New York City ten years ago, many lost their bearings and tens of thousands streamed to the lower Manhattan seeking away off the island. The actions of the spontaneous rescue flotilla of civilian, commercial and coast guard vessels that carried a half million people to safety is one of the great untold stories of that day.
In a new mini-documentary narrated by Tom Hanks and commissioned for the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the ferryboat captains, coast guardsmen and civilian boaters relate the terror and heroism of that day of infamy.
The nine-hour boatlift rescued over 500,000 terrified civilians from the piers and seawalls of Lower Manhattan as the towers burned and collapsed around them. It was the largest sea evacuation in history, larger even than the storied evacuation of 339,000 British and French troops off the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940.
“Every mode of transportation out of Manhattan was shut down,” said Kirk Slater, a captain for the New York Waterway ferries that run across the Hudson River between New York City and New Jersey. “All the subways were shut, the tunnels were all closed the bridges, they closed everything, immediately.”
As the gravity of the attacks became apparent, hundreds of thousands of residents and office workers from Lower Manhattan, their escape northward blocked by the flaming towers and police barricades, streamed toward the island’s southern tip. There, with the Statue of Liberty looking on, their attention focused on the one last way off Manhattan: the water.
At first, the response by local vessels was completely spontaneous. Ferries, tug boats, fishing boats and other vessels pulled up, filled with tired, dust-covered survivors, and made for the nearest shore – often Brooklyn, just across the East River, New Jersey across the Hudson, or Staten Island on the other side of New York Harbor.
“They were just streaming out of the buildings and the first mode of transportation they saw was a ferryboat,” said Rick Thornton, another New York Waterway captain. “They didn’t even care where the boat was going.”
The numbers involved threatened to overwhelm these efforts, however. “There wasn’t panic in New York, in the beginning – just volume,” said Capt. Slater, whose ferry made dozens of trips back and forth to New Jersey. “It wasn’t until the first building fell that there was panic.”
The collapse of the south tower of the World Trade Center at 9:59 am that morning – some 56 minutes after an airliner ignited an inferno in its upper floors – changed the picture for the vessels in the boatlift. Desperate survivors overloaded boats and a thick, toxic pall of smoke and debris engulfed the piers and seawalls where thousands prayed for deliverance.
U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Michael Day, who had been helping coordinate the evacuation from a pilot boat in the harbor until that point, decided a new level of urgency was required.
“There was a small boat at the lower tip of Manhattan — I thought the boat was going to flip over because so many people were trying to get on,” said Day, now a commander. “And as I looked behind, they were just 10 deep. And that’s kind of what gave us the idea. So 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 wanting to help with the evacuation of Lower Manhattan, reporter to Governor’s Island.“
Hundreds of boats heeded the call from Long Island Sound to the New Jersey shore – fishing boats, pleasure craft, ferries, barges and tugs. James Parese, captain of one of the largest, the huge, orange Staten Island Ferry, said the mood was somber.
“They didn’t know what was going on, they had seen the buildings hit with two planes,” he said of his passengers. “As far as they were concerned we were being bombed. I was wondering if they were going to come on the boat, if they had people with bombs.”
As the day wore on, though, all the captains noticed something amazing: people from all walks of life, hardened New Yorkers, suburban commuters, tourists and others, helping each other, consoling and calming those shaken by the attacks.
“Housewives, workers that do windows, we have executives,” said Vincent Ardolino, captain of the harbor cruiser Amberjack V. “And the thing that was the best, everyone helping everyone.”
”I saw four businessmen lifting up an old woman with a seeing-eye dog, a German Shepherd, and they lifted her up like a surf board and passed her over the handrails,” said Capt. Thornton of New York Waterway.
A little over seven years later, many of these same captains and crews would be involved in another daring rescue when U.S. Airways Flight 1549 was forced to make an emergency landing in the Hudson River in January, 2009. The boats, many of them New York Waterway ferries, arrived within minutes of the aircraft’s landing. Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger III had credited their quick thinking for the fact that none of his passengers were lost. A half million others second the emotion.