The maritime response shows how people pull together, she and Kendra say, using their own creativity and the power of community-based resources.
Boat operators generally didn’t know exactly what had occurred in the minutes immediately after the attacks, but they could see the smoke. And later, when they looked at the dock areas around Battery Park, they could see masses of people who needed help.
Ferryboats that had dropped off morning commuters from Staten Island just minutes earlier turned around and came back to Manhattan to pick up those same passengers or others.
Tugboats, tour boats, private party boats, fishing boats and Coast Guard vessels all joined in as the word went out, first informally and then through a Coast Guard broadcast. Crewmembers spray-painted signs with “Hoboken” or other destinations so that the passengers hurriedly boarding would know where they were going to land. Most made multiple round trips throughout the day.
A retired New York Fire Department fireboat, the John J. Harvey, that had been restored as an antique was spotted in the water and called into service. “It had been retired because it was considered to be obsolete, but it got a second life,” Kendra says.
By the end of the day, it would be the largest water evacuation in history, surpassing the World War II rescue of some 340,000 stranded Allied soldiers from the harbor of Dunkirk, France, over a period of nine days.
“A disaster like 9/11 is a huge, complex event, but people on the scene break it down into manageable tasks,” Wachtendorf says. “Over and over again in our interviews with people who volunteered in the evacuation, we heard the same thing: ‘We just did what we had to do.’”
People also “found their niche,” Kendra says. The boats evacuating survivors from Manhattan carried firefighters, paramedics and supplies on their return trips. Smaller vessels that could travel farther up the river began ferrying medical personnel to St. Vincent’s Hospital, where they anticipated that the injured would be taken from Ground Zero.
“One person couldn’t have managed this kind of response,” Kendra says. “Much of it just sprang up. It demonstrates that a lot of disaster management can’t be commanded or controlled.”
Meanwhile, the story of the evacuation hasn’t been ignored. A short documentary, titled Boatlift and narrated by Tom Hanks, was produced and can be viewed here on YouTube. The Sept. 11 Museum and New York’s South Street Seaport Museum, among others, have exhibitions about the water rescue effort.
But the evacuation isn’t in the forefront of most Americans’ memories of the terrorist attacks and their aftermath. The authors of American Dunkirk say they wanted the book to present scientifically important research, “but we also wanted to show what happened on the waterfront on 9/11, which at some points is just 350 yards away from the World Trade Center but was a different world in terms of disaster response.”
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UDaily article by Ann Manser