Of all the things worth remembering on 9/11, one incredible event is often overlooked. After the attack, all the bridges, tunnels and rail lines in and out of New York City were shut down. Somewhere between 300,000 and one million people were trapped trapped in lower Manhattan. Amazingly, perhaps miraculously, they were all evacuated by that evening by a flotilla of ferries, tugs, excursion boats, fireboats, buoy tenders, patrol boats and yachts. The evacuation was unplanned and almost spontaneous. The Coast Guard called for “All available boats,” and all available boats responded, the captains and crews doing what needed to be done. It was truly an American Dunkirk.
I feel a personal gratitude to all the mariners involved as my wife was one of the trapped commuters. After being stuck in her office building by the smoke, dust and debris for several hours, she heard that ferries were running on the East River from the foot of Wall Street. Wrapping a towel around her face, she walked with her colleagues down the block to find a busy ferry terminal at Pier 11 on the East River. The incredible thing was that the terminal had not been there that morning. By lashing deck barges alongside a pier and lashing makeshift gangways to the dock, ferries diverted from all over New York harbor were able to load passengers at the makeshift terminal which had not existed only hours before. Ferry employees directed the still stunned passengers to the appropriate ferries running to Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island or New Jersey. No fares were collected. Everyone helped each other in boarding. Miraculously, my wife was home on the other side of the Hudson by mid afternoon.
Here is an amazing video that captures the madness, wonder, determination and commonplace heroism of that Tuesday in September, twelve years ago today.