Remembering the Great Boat Lift of September 11, 2001

Once again we think back to that tragic day 11 years ago this week, when the Twin Towers were attacked in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and an attempt on the White House and we experienced the loss of 2,977 lives. Victims of the World Trade Center totaled 2,606. One hundred and twenty-five lives were lost at the Pentagon and 246 in the four planes. Much has been written about that day and we have seen photographs and videos of all the sites, but the little known story that you do not hear much about is the ‘great boat lift’ that took place Sept. 11, 2001. It is known as the largest boat lift in history. Even greater than the boat lift at Dunkirk during World War II when 339,000 British and French soldiers were rescued over a period of nine days.

The people in New York City flocked to Manhattan to try to escape the ash and falling debris from the buildings that fateful day. Their only thought was to get out of the area. They did not know where they would be going, nor did they care. Every bridge and tunnel off the island was blocked. The only way out of the city was from lower Manhattan. When they got to the water’s edge, many were jumping in the water in fear and in an attempt to get away. There were so many in the water that the boats had trouble avoiding them. People were lined up on the walls crying out for help. A United States Coast Guard pilot of ‘Boat of New York’ sent out a call saying “All available boats wanting to help with evacuation report to Governor’s Island.” Private boats of every size, shape and description showed up to help; many of them untrained civilians. The slips were shrouded in the dark, acrid smoke making it hard for the boats to see, but more than 1,000 boats responded. In less than nine hours, close to 500,000 people had been transported by water out of the city. These citizens were operating their boats in violation of dozens of marine regulations, but these were unusual times. These boats went back and forth all day long. Those rescued were business people, housewives, children and even an elderly woman and her seeing-eye dog were lifted and handed over the railing to a waiting boat. The Coast Guard, owners of the ferries, tugboats, Pilot boats and party boats all responded in an amazingly short length of time. The captains of many of these boats have since said it was the best day of their lives on the water.

This is a story that we did not hear too much about, but these were very brave individuals. These New York City boat owners should be remembered for their heroism as much as the firefighters, police, doctors, EMS personnel, nurses and others who risked their lives that day. They had no way of knowing if another attack was on the way and if they might be in harm’s way. Their concern for their fellow man was much more important to them that day than fear of harm to themselves. As a crewman for one of the boats said, “This was just ordinary people stepping up because something needed to be done.”

A plaque hangs in the United States Merchant Marine Academy detailing the accomplishments of the Midshipmen who participated. All these people should be remembered with a plaque of some kind or at least more recognition than they have received. Everyone should hear about this great rescue mission. A hero is a person who does what he can.

Strange, when you think about it, how humans are capable of hating each other, treating each other badly, putting each other down verbally and in some cases even doing injury to one another, but when a tragedy strikes, people have a way of coming together and uniting in an effort to help their fellow human beings.

That was the case on Sept. 11, 2001 at the water’s edge.