Twenty years ago—on September 11, 2001—commercial and recreational boaters answered the call and took part in the world’s largest marine rescue.

For many of us, it’s hard to believe that two decades have passed since the 2001 terrorist attacks. The blueness of the sky that morning, the initial disbelief of the news when we learned of the unfolding events, and the shock of seeing the towers collapse and the smoke billowing up from the Pentagon—be it in person or on the news—seem as clear today as it was that mid-September morning. For others, particularly the younger generation, 9/11 is a historical event without a clear memory attached, yet one that has shaped the context of their lives. September 11th marks, in so many ways, a day filled with tragedy, but also a day filled with stories of hope, perseverance and resilience.

The maritime evacuation of Manhattan on 9/11 is one of those stories. It was by most accounts the largest waterborne evacuation in history. Credible estimates of the number of people evacuated by boat range from 300,000, according to the South Street Seaport Museum, to as many as 500,000, according to the Coast Guard. Precise numbers will probably never be fully established. More than that, the collective volunteer effort of boat operators and waterfront workers was unplanned, improvised and enormously successful.

01_Priority 1 United States Coast Guard boat en route to Lower Manhattan on September 11 2001 (1)

Over the course of about 10 hours, hundreds of thousands of residents, workers and visitors who hadn’t escaped to the north or to the east across the Brooklyn Bridge were transported by ferries, tugs, dinner cruise boats and other assorted vessels to New Jersey, Staten Island and other parts of New York City. Even after the evacuation subsided, many boats stayed in service for several days, carrying first responders and supplies to lower Manhattan, or providing weary rescuers and recovery workers around Ground Zero a place to rest or get a meal.

In the disaster management field, planning is essential. So how did this happen in the absence of planning? To answer this question, and to tell the story of these boat operations, we interviewed 100 participants in the evacuation for our book American Dunkirk: The Waterborne Evacuation of Manhattan on 9/11. The boat captains and crew, waterfront workers, Coast Guard officials and harbor pilots provided their own captivating take on what transpired. We talked with them on their boats and in their offices, in coffee shops and along piers. They outlined their routes using charts of New York Harbor. We also used oral histories compiled by the Coast Guard and the South Street Seaport Museum.

Every disaster is different, but a half century of disaster research makes clear that there are a lot of similarities in how people handle them. One of those is the important role of spontaneous volunteers and emergent groups: groups of previously unconnected or loosely connected people who join forces to solve a problem. Another is improvisation, and improvisations were everywhere. Plans did not exist for clearing Manhattan, but there were some plans that provided at least a starting point, including those for OPSAIL 2000 and for a catastrophic accident involving a Staten Island Ferry. But of course, most of the boat operators had never heard of these. To them, they were starting fresh, and that fresh start gave them some creative freedom to solve problems because they weren’t sticking to a plan; they were thinking and acting almost simultaneously, the essence of improvisation.

The Beginning

We sat with Capt. Patrick Harris, the owner of the sailing vessel Ventura, on the deck of his boat in North Cove, a small recreational and commercial marina on the western shore of Manhattan. Our interview took place on a day not unlike the one he was about to describe, maybe a little warmer, but with the notable exception that the Twin Towers were missing from the sky above us. He witnessed their disintegration:

“[It was a] quiet morning ... beautiful wind, northwest wind, perfectly clear sky, quiet, and suddenly I heard this roar of an airplane. Like it was right next to us. I looked up and saw the first aircraft just go right in the building, and then total silence for seconds. What happened immediately after that was I looked at it, and in my mind, I can actually still see the last half of the aircraft, the tail end, just tearing in the building, and then all of the windows, all the square windows from right to left and about four or five stories up, lit up like an arcade game, bright orange. And then I heard the sound [he makes a puffing sound] like you’re lighting your barbeque grill and you have too much propane on before you hit the match. [He makes a puffing sound again.] And that was a fireball flying out of the building, big circular pattern, lot of black around it. And then it seemed to get sucked back in, and then it came out again, all black and smoky. My first reaction was to call the Coast Guard on Channel 16, which is the emergency station, and let them know. ‘U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Coast Guard. Ventura. Emergency traffic.’ Something like that. They came back right away, and said, ‘What’s the nature of the emergency?’ And that’s when I found myself not able to fully articulate what I saw. Because my mind still saw it, my brain registered it, but I, maybe I didn’t want to believe it or something. I heard screaming: ‘It was a jet, it was a jet, it was a jet,’ and all I told them at the time was, ‘There has just been a tremendous explosion at the Financial Center, trade towers, a number of stories on fire. They’re gonna need backup.’ And that’s when their protocol with the language broke down, and they said something like, ‘What?!?’ Or, or, there was a pause, and then it was a statement back that said, ‘We’ll alert the appropriate departments.’ And that was the end of the communications.”

Capt. Harris was very likely the first on the marine radio frequency

with his startling report, describing such a shocking event that, despite its very immediacy, he could not believe his eyes. At that instant, Harris did not know—could not know—whether he was witnessing a terrible emergency in a single building or the opening of an unprecedented American disaster.

Coming Together to Help

Mark Phillips ran a dinner boat line called VIP Cruises. The company had four boats capable of carrying anywhere from 150 to 600 passengers—big boats, with staffs of servers, bartenders and chefs as well as mariners. Phillips started work at his office at the North Cove Marina, next to the World Financial Center—the same place where Capt. Harris on the Ventura anticipated a quiet morning—and had motored in a workboat to another VIP facility in Red Hook, Brooklyn, to pick up some oil for two of his boats. Standing there at his workshop in Brooklyn, looking across the harbor, he could see the Statue of Liberty and the World Trade Center.

02-Priority 11 Boats maneuvering along the seawall in Lower Manhattan (1)

“It was like, just a perfect view, you know?” he recalled. While Phillips worked out back, sorting the materials for the morning’s chores, one of the kitchen staff rushed in, exclaiming that the World Trade Center was on fire, that “a little plane went into the building.” Phillips saw a thin plume of smoke rising and guessed that maybe a sightseer in a small plane had come too close and had crashed. “It didn’t look like anything. It looked like just a little ribbon ... a ribbon of smoke, almost like a chimney.”

With no additional information and the true magnitude of the event diluted by distance, Phillips kept gathering his oil filters, oil and tools. His next view of the ruin unfolding in Manhattan was not firsthand.

One of his staff members was watching TV and called him in to look: “Wow. I could not believe what I was seeing. I said, ‘Boy, I better get back there.’”

After a series of phone calls to run through their options, Phillips, VIP Capt. Dennis Miano and VIP Capt. Bobby Haywood eventually converged to a boatyard in Gerritsen Beach. They picked up a few more mariners along the way, including Capt. Buddy DeWitt and Capt. Fred Ardolino. They packed themselves into a boat and headed to Manhattan.

It was a rough crossing—not from the water, but from the picket lines of Coast Guard and police boats that stopped and questioned them, over and over again. Finally, one of boats they encountered—it could have been a Coast Guard or a police department vessel—called another boat to escort them into North Cove.

Once there, they found the place heaped with the detritus of catastrophe, smoothed over with drifts of toxic, glittering particles. “It looked like shiny moon dust,” Miano said. They wanted to get underway, but no one was around. Phillips and Haywood could handle the ­Romantica, but Miano’s Royal Princess was a much bigger boat. Miano still had one of the boat operators from Brooklyn, but for a boat that size, he needed more crew. He ran into Harris of the Ventura, who jumped on board and lent a hand for the rest of the day. With the help of an unlikely pair—a couple of foreign tourists standing around, neither of whom had any maritime experience—Miano eventually pulled the Royal Princess out of North Cove.

The next hours passed with multiple boatloads of evacuees heading in all directions. They were instructed by the Coast Guard on their first trip, but after that they ran at their own discretion. Sometimes they went to Liberty Landing, near New Jersey’s waterfront science museum; sometimes they went to a marina a bit farther north. Once they were asked to pick up a contingent of police officers from the East River side of Manhattan.

Phillips and his colleagues had, essentially, taken on new jobs as emergency responders, and they did not just carry passengers: “We ended up bringing body bags. We were bringing medical teams, dogs,” said Phillips. They transported hundreds of cases of bottled water. Because the dinner cruise boats had lots of lights, the New York Harbor pilots who were helping coordinate boat operations asked Phillips to keep one of the boats going at night. That evening, around six or seven o’clock, the boats were loaded with gurneys to make a triage and treatment area. And since they already had a lot of food on hand for the day’s canceled excursions, VIP’s boats also served as dining halls and rest stations for weary firefighters and rescuers.

All of these activities stemmed from decisions made in the moment. One mariner said, “People would come in and they’d lend their expertise, whatever [it] happened to be. Most of the time, they were schlepping stuff around, but then all of a sudden, somebody would come up with an idea, and if it sounded like it was decent, we’d go with it.”

To some, it might be discomforting to know that those seemingly “in charge” were not in charge at all. There is some comfort in believing that someone with more qualifications has everything covered. Indeed, the Coast Guard had issued a call for all available boats. The harbor pilots and police were responding. But no one had everything covered. Mariners and others along the waterfront saw and understood the need to respond at the same time as formal authorities. Many were underway prior to the call for all available boats—others self-deployed, reporting they never actually heard about the call until much later. It was their knowledge about their own environment and their community that helped them recognize a need, come together, be creative and prove instrumental in the response.

Thinking and Deliberation

Like the groups themselves, decisions emerged collectively. Deliberation was especially key for those at tugboat company Reinauer Transportation. Ken Peterson, who was a port captain for Reinauer, and safety director Kevin Tone worked with those around them to consider and reconsider many decisions on 9/11, including whether they should become involved at all. This was also the case for Lieutenant (now Captain) Mike Day. He emerged as the face of the Coast Guard near Ground Zero, working with the New York Harbor pilots to establish the Pilot Boat New York as a traffic coordination center around Lower Manhattan. Minute-to-minute decision-making required diplomacy, a willingness to take risks and a willingness to listen.

Peterson was the one ashore in support of seagoing operations, whose job was to be sure boats had the necessary crew, equipment and fuel to operate efficiently and in compliance with regulations. He developed his knowledge for this over years aboard tugs. By the time of 9/11, Peterson had a broad palette of skills as a boat operator and a fleet coordinator—just the knowledge needed to act as spontaneous port captain for a spontaneous fleet in an improvised seaport.

Peterson described to us what he saw from his location on the other side of the harbor: “When the first plane hit, I was doing an inspection on the Morgan Reinauer, one of the tugboats for the company. I was standing there looking out the window while talking to the captain, and I saw this plane ... and was like ... what the heck, is this a movie or something? I’m like, something’s wrong. And I looked and I looked again, and it was still there. And then it came over the radio, something happened.

“And we were looking out over the water and saw the second one hit. And they took all the captains, and we went inside. There were four tugboats at the dock there.

“I was like, ‘We gotta go. We’re here. We do oil spills. We do clean-ups. We help everybody else. Why don’t we go and do this, too?’

“So, we go up to the captains and said, ‘Hey, we don’t know what we’re gonna see, we don’t know what we’re gonna do, but we’re gonna go. And I wanna be the lead, and we’re gonna go for us.’ They’re like, ‘We’ll talk to our people,’ and I said ‘Volunteers only. If you wanna go, you’re welcome to go, but the owner’s lettin’ the boats go.’”

Kevin Tone also worked for Reinauer, as the safety director. Tone had a background with the Coast Guard, and he had worked with Reinauer for the past eight years.

“We started sizing up what we can actually get underway. We knew that probably all activity in the port would cease until they knew what was going on. We weren’t sure that the attack had ended, who knew what else was [coming], but they asked for help. So we lined up several vessels that would make the transit over there. We didn’t know what we were gonna do.”

They deliberated. First, the staff and owners of Reinauer had options to consider: how many boats to send; how to define what counted as an “available” boat, given their other commitments; and what they might face in terms of overall traffic management in the harbor. Moreover, they did not know exactly how they were going to proceed; they were not responding to a scripted mission. Tone had the idea to bring along extra flotation devices, water, oxygen and first-aid kits. They pillaged their storerooms for whatever equipment might be useful.

Mike Day recalled one of the pilots suggesting that removing the large boats from North Cove Yacht Harbor would give the operators more room to maneuver. So they moved them, towing a string of multi-million-dollar yachts up the river. Day did not really know what would have been involved in getting permission to take possession of those vessels. How does a Coast Guard officer impound someone’s private property? Perhaps with authorization from the attorney general? But the decision made sense to him: “There were a lot of little decisions like that, and that’s the call. And it was easier as time went on to do stuff like that.”

Day remembers one person who protested the refueling efforts at the site without a permit: “‘A permit?’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘it’s authorized under the Coast Guard in relation to an emergency. It’s a hierarchy of laws doctrine that we all can do this.’ He was like, ‘All right,’ and he walked off, and the chief was like, ‘What’s this hierarchy of law doctrine?’ and I go, ‘I don’t know.”” Day had made it up, but it worked.

Day was aware of two larger constituencies for his judgments: first, his superiors, and then a wider second sphere. Day described what we like to call “the Mike Wallace barometer,” based on Day’s reference to the journalist who served for nearly 40 years as a full-time correspondent on 60 Minutes:

“I was thinking [if] I was on 60 Minutes and they were interviewing me, would it make sense for me to be answering to Mike Wallace that I slowed [the evacuation] down because of a rule that the Coast Guard enacted and it just didn’t make sense? It was definitely one of these moments that I was very, very apprehensive, just because some of the boats were really low [in the water]. I kind of came [to the conclusion that] it’s okay; it’s the right thing, and I feel better saying yes.”

Citizenry in Disaster Response

We don’t say that volunteers should just go around doing whatever they want in a disaster. Some tasks need special skills and careful coordination. But we also know that there is a lot of room for volunteers—both planned and spontaneous—in disaster management, and that no disaster is managed without the involvement of people who never thought of themselves as essential. And perhaps no force is more powerful than boaters, who have been conditioned to abide by Maritime Law, which calls for them to always come to the rescue of a fellow mariner in danger. That ethos was easily transferable to the entire population of New York City on that grim September day, which meant boaters were there right away, answering the call.

This story is excerpted from American Dunkirk: The Waterborne Evacuation of Manhattan on 9/11, which is available at tupress.temple.edu/book/0943 or wherever books are sold.

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This article originally appeared in the September 2021 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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