Bigger Than Dunkirk: The Maritime Rescue of 9/11

The scope of Dunkirk’s evacuation of British and French troops has grown in significance and mythical proportions since its execution in 1940. The benefit of historians studying the rescue of more than 300,000 soldiers over a nine-day period has sealed its place in the annals of military history and humanity. However, sixty-one years later on the morning of September 11th, 2001, the landmark event was supplanted by an even bigger effort. More than 500,000 people were evacuated by sea from lower downtown Manhattan after the fall of the World Trade Center in New York City. The operation was coordinated by the U.S. Coast Guard and was comprised of approximately 150 seafaring vessels, and 600 civilian sailors and naval personnel.

The world watched in real time the horror of four hijacked passenger airliners used for suicide missions by militants associated with the Islamic group, al Qaida. Two planes were flown into the towers of the World Trade Center; a third plane hit the Pentagon in Washington D.C., and a fourth plane crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. Over 3,000 people were killed during the terrorist attacks, including more than 400 police officers and 343 firefighters.

Nineteen-years later, many people have shared their experience of that terrible day. One of the stories that is the simplest is also the most haunting. A woman on her way to work in the World Trade Center decided to get off one subway stop earlier than she normally would have. The autumn morning was beautiful, and the leaves were just starting to turn. She wanted to walk the rest of the way to her office to enjoy it. As she ascended the stairs of the subway station into the daylight, she watched the first plane hit the North Tower. Nothing is left of the New York that existed before that instant of impact. While the streets and buildings remain the same, with the exception of the Freedom Tower that now stands in the footprint of the Twin Towers, the tragedy of 9/11 changed New Yorkers and the world.

When American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 hit the Twin Towers, it brought the shockwaves of a new Pearl Harbor. Within seconds of the plane crashes, transportation shut downs were in effect throughout Manhattan, preventing the ability to flee the city. This left hundreds of thousands of people trapped on the southern tip of the island. The situation was already bleak. Two of the tallest buildings in the Western Hemisphere had been transformed into infernos by jet fuel. In all of the panic, people jumped from the sea wall into the bay and literally tried to swim to safety. Behind them, civilians stranded by the flames in the upper floors of the towers, stepped out of the windows into a freefall of death rather than being burned alive. Blaring sirens and flashing lights of emergency responders resounded through a scene of chaos and helplessness. One hour and 42-minutes after impact, the 110 story Twin Towers had collapse into an erupting volcano of ash and debris. The sound of structures snapping, people screaming, utility lines blowing and windows shattering gave way to a few moments of silence. Then through the gray, opaque air littered with floating office papers, the screech of fallen firefighters’ body alarms was all that could be heard. For those trapped between the mayhem and the Upper Bay, the chance of getting to safety was next to impossible. Unable to escape east and cross the Brooklyn Bridge to Long Island, the only route available was by sea. A boat was the only salvation.

Before the U.S. Coast Guard Service and the Harbor Unit of the New York Police Department could put out an emergency radio call to all nearby vessels, crews of local boats and merchant sailors who had witnessed the disaster unfold went straight into Ground Zero to aid in the evacuation. Most of these vessels were captained by ordinary civilians responding to the plea for help. Despite the threat of sailing into a warzone and the possibility of being bombed again, these sailors continued on with the determination to support in whatever way they could. The Staten Island Ferry, Governors Island Ferry, and an assortment of tug boats, dinner boats, fishing boats, and private vessels joined the U.S. Coast Guard who led the operation. Anything that could float and could carry passengers was called into action. The resulting fleet of good Samaritans was far beyond what anyone could have imagined.

The historic boatlift of 9/11 was entirely spontaneous and perilous because of the unknown factor of impending attacks. Rescuers sailed across the East River from Long Island. Further away, some traveled about a mile of the Hudson River, ferrying people from Manhattan to New Jersey.

Blinded by the smoke and debris of the fallen buildings, mariners oared the boats to the sea-wall and to any available slip. One of the captains involved in the evacuation said that the shell-shocked civilians walking out of the smoke from the fallen towers looked like zombies. They were covered in dust and ash as they packed onto the vessels ten-people or more deep against the railings and on the decks. The situation was so desperate that it was not how many people a boat could carry; it was how many people could it hold.

The admiral of the U.S. Coast Guard, James Loy called it an ad hoc armada that in a period of nine hours carried half-a-million people to safety. It was all hands on deck, and the mariners involved did everything they could to help. Rather than turning away and letting the ruin unfold, this was a moment where humans rose up to aid those in need during a catastrophe.  This maritime rescue was a show of unity, compassion, and courage that was as impressive as Dunkirk, but is far less acknowledged for its heroism.

9/11 Boatlift

September 11th, 2001, New York City, Lower Manhattan:

500,000 people, 150 seafaring vessels, 600 sailors and naval personnel. Time: 9-hours

Dunkirk Evacuation (Operation Dynamo)

May 26th – June 4th, 1940, Dunkirk, France:

338,226 British, French, and Belgian troops, 850 seafaring vessels manned by mostly naval personnel and some volunteer sailors.

Time: 9-days

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Bijou Glass

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