The 9/11 boatlift

| 13 Sep 2012 | 01:25

They ran blindly through the smoke and ash that was raining down, remnants of the shattered Twin Towers and lost lives. That beautiful Sept. 11, 2001 morning had become hell on earth. It happened so fast, they didn’t know what they were running from – or towards.
Shock and confusion reigned. Bridges, tunnels and subways were closed and they were trapped on an island. So they ran for their lives. To the water’s edge.
Within a few hours time nearly 3,000 souls were lost and the survivor’s lives were changed forever. Was there more to come from out of that clear blue sky? No one knew. Terrorism had come to America and hundreds of thousands of civilians, overcome with uncertainty, ran towards the southern tip of Manhattan.

Evacuation of enormous proportions

When they hit the sea wall they were stranded and helpless. As the two iconic New York buildings crumbled behind them panic increased and some hurled themselves into the river. In their state of shock they could not have known that the American spirit had not died that day; help was on the way. The biggest boat lift in history was about to begin. Within nine hours, approximately 500,000 people would be rescued from Manhattan Island.

“All available boats…”

It was a spontaneous evacuation effort in the beginning. Incoming boats loaded up and sailed to the safer shores of Brooklyn, Staten Island, the Bronx, Queens and New Jersey.
Under the initial direction of a United States Coast Guard (USCG) harbor boat, the rescue boats were doing their best. When the overwhelming number of survivors at the sea walls was assessed, the USCG realized the need for more help and better coordination and issued the following radio transmission: “All available boats, this is the USCG aboard the pilot boat New York; anyone wanting to help with the evacuation of Lower Manhattan, report to Governors Island.”
And they came, sailing into the zero visibility surrounding Manhattan, into an area of few docking locations; New York Waterway and Staten Island ferries and fleets of tug boats, pleasure craft, diving boats and fishing boats. They came from all over, including from the Jersey shore. Within 20 minutes of the radio call, the horizon was filled with rescue boats speeding across the water into the unknown.
Directly ahead of them was a nightmare. What had happened? What was to come? Whose fighter jets were flying low in the skies over the river? As they sailed into open waters were the rescue boats at risk of an aerial attack or were terrorists mingling with survivors? Leaving these troubled thoughts behind, they continued with their mission of mercy.
There was no training, no tactical plan for such an incident. For these captains of the sea and their crews it was simply the right and moral thing to do. The evacuees also rose to the occasion, helping the injured, calming hysteria in some. While most of the ash-covered, shell-shocked evacuees didn’t care where the boat was going, some crew members stripped sheets from bunks, spray painted the destination on them and hung them over the side. But anywhere else on earth was a better place to be.

Ferry to the other side

Credited with transporting tens of thousands of evacuees that day, the crew members of the Staten Island Ferry risked their lives, blindly docking their huge orange crafts at Whitehall St. as the smoke and debris filled the air. For days following the attack, the ferries were closed to the public as they transported emergency personnel and equipment to Manhattan and military personnel and equipment, including Army tanks, to Governors Island.
Reached by phone, Captain Jeffrey White, who was on board the Staten Island Ferry John F. Kennedy on Sept. 11, 2001, reflected on the day.
The first run of the John F. Kennedy to the smoldering shores of Manhattan was at around 12:30 p.m., mooring at the Whitehall St. ferry slip. All of the Staten Island fleet participated in the evacuation.
“The visibility was tough, we were using radar and it was tough to breathe. But everybody did what they had to do,” White said.
White’s on-loading passengers were mostly in shock. His own reaction was the same. “It was amazing, you couldn’t believe it, I’ve never seen a sight like that,” he said.

"Proud to be an American"

Keeping in contact with the Coast Guard, the ferries made their 20-minute return trip across the harbor bearing emergency equipment and personnel. The emergency workers braving the unknown, the ferries assisting in both directions.
Around 3 p.m. the people of Staten Island started showing up at the Staten Island port, bringing supplies and food to be transported to Manhattan.
“I was proud to be an American that day,” White said.
“We ran up until midnight and then they tied us up in Whitehall," White continued. "We were going to be the morgue. We had body bags ready in the car lanes. But there were no bodies,” White said, his voice still echoing the emotion of the day, and still questioning which scenario was harder to take.

Heroes on the waves

On Sept. 11, 2012, the ferries carried families and firefighters back across the water to the memorial ceremony at the site of the World Trade Center.
It’s been different in the ensuing years.
“Down here we are now always on heightened alert. On our toes all the time,” White said.
America lost her innocence on Sept. 11, 2001, but she also saw her people rise up in unity. There are many heroic stories of 9/11; this one is for the heroes on the waves.

Sources: Captain Jeffrey White, Staten Island Ferry; 9/11 Boatlift documentary);; (Harbor voices from 9/11);;