By Alison Bate, October 2001 (Revised June 2019)
An armada of tugboats, ferries and small craft came to the rescue of hundreds of thousands of trapped New Yorkers on the day of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
They ferried survivors to safety. They helped bring out bodies. They brought hot food for the workers, and now they are at work helping clear the rubble.
The U.S. Coast Guard is full of praise for all the mariners involved. It estimates nearly one million people were evacuated by sea. (*See revision note at end of article)
Lt. Michael Day from Coast Guard Activities New York, was on board the Pilot Boat New York helping coordinate the mass evacuation.
“It was a shining hour for the maritime community,” said Day, Chief of the Waterways Oversight Branch. “They did a remarkable job.”
CALLING ALL WORKBOATS
On Tuesday Sept.11, two hijacked jet liners flew into the World Trade Center towers in a terrorist attack. The USCG put out a distress call for all tugs and small craft in the area to respond. Nobody could get off lower Manhattan and survivors were fleeing down to the waterfront.
When the call came, Ken Peterson was on Staten Island, about half an hour across the water. Peterson, port captain at Reinauer Transportation, sent four tugboats over and hopped on board “Franklin Reinauer”.
As they headed across, billows of smoke streamed from the World Trade Center towers. When they arrived at Battery Park Pier, about 12 other tugboats were circling around, waiting for instructions.
Peterson took the bull by the horns and became the unofficial waterfront coordinator that memorable day. Glen Miller, from Miller’s Launch, and NY/NJ pilot Andrew McGovern joined in organising the impromptu fleet.
On Tuesday, 27 tugboats took off around 3,300 people from lower Manhattan, ferrying them in small batches to safety. The Staten Island ferries, commuter boats and dinner boats were also kept busy with the survivors.
“They were dusty and bloodied,” said Peterson. “Some people had lost their homes completely, and didn’t know where to go.”
Peterson walked up to Ground Zero and talked with the rescue crews. “The faces of the people. They were just tired and determined to find people alive.”
For the next four days, the team of tugboats evacuated people from Battery Point, from Pier 11 and from North Cove Marina. As time went on they became more organized, handing out sheets and blankets and setting up signs for different destinations.
6,000 PEOPLE FERRIED TO SAFETY
Peterson estimated up to 6,000 people were ferried to safety by tugboats in the four days that followed the attacks.
Moran Towing, which had nine tugboats working in the harbor that Tuesday, was heavily involved.
“Most of them were covered with soot, but like most New Yorkers, they were a courageous lot,” said Moran president Greg McGinty of the survivors.
At one stage they agreed to ferry bodies to temporary morgues on Staten Island. “We asked the guys, as it’s a hard job,”said McGinty. As it turned out, there were very few bodies, and they only made one run. Sanitation scows were also shuttled back and forth, moving rubble from the devastated area.
McGinty downplayed their role. “We didn’t do anything much. The firemen and the police department here have been so incredibly good. I’m very proud of being an American.”
Other companies at the scene included Donjon Marine, K-Sea Transportation, Buchanan Marine, Roehrig Transportation, Dann Towing, Ken’s Marine Service, Leevac Marine, the tug “Vulcan” and the New Jersey fishing boat “Captain John”. Spill response vessels involved included “Miller’s”, the “NRC Guardian”, and the “New Jersey Responder”.
Peterson said everyone was willing to help – whatever the role. There were no toilet facilities on the island, and the New Jersey Responder became the main boat, until portapotties arrived.
He said just knowing the boats were out on the water was a source of comfort to many relief workers. On Thursday, 11 tugboats were kept busy when part of a building collapsed and everyone rushed to the waterfront.
“We had 250 people there within five minutes,” said Peterson.
The boats were also used to deliver hot meals to rescue workers. McDonald’s gave over 2,000 hamburgers and french fries and the Outback Steak House began making hamburgers on the dock.
“We basically made a tent city right at the south wall,” said Peterson.
On Friday, the military moved in and the atmosphere changed. Only official rescue workers were allowed into the security zone. The tired teams of vessel operators were finally relieved by the USCG at 2100 hours Friday night.
Their duties were taken over by the Army Corps of Engineers, New York and New Jersey State Police and New York City fireboats.
VIEW FROM THE USCG
At Vessel Traffic Services New York, junior grade Lt. Bob Post had been on duty for about three hours when the first plane hit the north tower.
The USCG has cameras throughout the port, so they focussed in on the building. When the second plane crashed, officers realized this wasn’t just an accident.
The USCG started closing the port and began setting up a security zone over the Battery and the Statue of Liberty. Search and rescue units were called out and the cutters “Katherine Walker” and Hawser (CECHK) headed for the lower Manhattan area.
“It was pretty hectic at the beginning,” said Post, based on Staten Island.
Four USCG officers went on board the “Pilot Boat New York” to help coordinate activities,among them Lt. Day.
Day worked at the New York Port Authority offices in the World Trade Center for six months, so the attacks were very much a personal issue for him. I found it very cathartic to be part of that relief effort,” he said.
As time went on, the main relief effort involved getting not just people but supplies back and forth across the water. “It was incredible what was accomplished,” Day added.
When fire trucks started running out of fuel, they used fuel from the tugs to keep the trucks going. On Thursday, welders sorting through the debris were running low on acetylene for their cutting torches. New Jersey was called, and bottles started coming over again – all by water.
When there were problems distributing food to rescue workers, someone in the maritime community called John Deere’s directly. Shortly afterward, ten ATVs (all-terrain vehicles) were being escorted by police across two states to lower Manhattan.
At the time of writing, trucks and barges continue the daunting task of moving mountains of debris. Weeks Marine is carrying out emergency dredging to create a channel to allow sanitation barges access to the devastated areas.
The mass evacuation may be over, but the vessel operators are unlikely to forget that memorable week.
As Reinauer’s Ken Peterson said: “We’re glad we were all able to help.”
© This story first ran in Marine Digest magazine, October 2001.
- UPDATE: In this original story, I interviewed personnel from the U.S. Coast Guard shortly after the attacks and quoted their estimate that 1 million people were evacuated by water from Lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001. Nowadays, the numbers evacuated are thought to be closer to 500,000. Still an impressive number, though, and bigger than the Dunkirk evacuation during World War 2. Ferries carried the bulk of the evacuees.
RELATED 9/11 BOAT RESCUE LINKS:
* List of 9/11 Rescue Boats
* Moran Crews Cited for 9/11 Evacuation Endeavors (Sep. 2005)
* Coast Guard Led 9-11 Water Evacuation Was ‘Bigger Than Dunkirk” (2014)