It was a day that changed everything.
If you were alive and old enough to pay attention, you remember where you were and what you were doing when this date’s events unfolded, early on a Tuesday in 2001.
For my wife and me, it was our twin daughters’ first day of second grade, in a new school in Lakewood, Wash. We woke up just before 6 a.m. sharp to television news reports of American Airlines Flight 11 having struck the north tower of New York’s World Trade Center 15 minutes earlier. A live picture of the burning sky scraper filled the screen. We sat groggily watching in confusion, transfixed by the disorienting picture of a burning skyscraper, so early in the morning.
Almost immediately, right in front of our eyes, the south tower exploded in flames as United Flight 175 crashed into the north tower at 9:03 a.m., Eastern time. The confusion about what might be happening was instantly gone. A terrorist attack, utilizing American-flagged airliners as weapons, was underway. I dialed from memory the number of a graduate school classmate whose commute to work in New York’s financial district took her through the World Trade Center every day. She answered on the second ring and without so much as a greeting, said “I’m OK, I’m home.” Good fortune was with her. She had chosen that particular week to take some vacation time. Almost 3,000 victims were not as fortunate.
As the next 90 minutes unfolded, two more airliners would crash, American Flight 77 into the Pentagon, and United Flight 93 into the ground in western Pennsylvania when passengers, having become aware of the terrorist plot, attempted to re-take their hijacked plane that was likely headed for the White House or Capitol building.
The chaos that unfolded that September morning radiated across the world. My wife and I did our best to keep to our normal morning routine so that our daughters would not sense that anything was wrong on such an eventful day for them. It was the only thing we could control. We attended a ceremony that morning at 8 a.m., celebrating the school’s reopening of a renovated wing. There we were, a collection of parents and educators, participating in a meaningless ribbon cutting and pretending everything was normal so as to emotionally shield our young children/students from the events unfolding 3,000 miles away. Meanwhile New York and Washington burned.
Everyone remembers the helplessness we all felt when the towers fell and the years-long process of recovery and reclamation the World Trade Center properties, the repairing of the Pentagon and the innocent lives lost on American soil.
Less remembered in the weeks, months and years since 9/11 was the response of the New York harbor’s maritime community to the terrorist attacks. Just as hundreds of thousands of workers who commuted to Manhattan every day were seeking a way off the island and an escape from death and chaos occurring behind them, government authorities closed all bridges and tunnels into and out of the island for fear of another terrorist attack aimed at the city’s transportation system. Everyone working in lower Manhattan who lived somewhere else was stranded, because Manhattan is surrounded by water.
Only one source of transportation remained, boats. Initially, a few individual captains of private and government ferries and tug boats, seeing the need, began rescuing stranded workers from landings and docks around the south end of Manhattan Island. But the number of people needing transport far exceeded the boats immediately available for the task. This was no FEMA rescue drill. This was the real thing and there was no time to plan it.
It was not until the Coast Guard put out the call for all boats wanting to assist with the evacuation of lower Manhattan to report to Governor’s Island — a former military base turned mostly park located a half mile south of Manhattan in New York’s upper bay — that it was known how the maritime community would respond to such an emergency. If there was any doubt, there shouldn't have been. Within minutes, hundreds of boats of all shapes and sizes were racing towards lower Manhattan to help with the evacuation.
Over the course of nine hours, in what became known as the great 9/11 boatlift, American mariners evacuated over a half million people from lower Manhattan Island. It would become the largest maritime evacuation in history. As narrated by Tom Hanks in the short film “BOATLIFT: An Untold Tale of 9/11 Resilience,” in comparison to the May 1941 Dunkirk evacuation where 339,000 British and French soldiers were evacuated by an armada of private boats over a nine-day period, the 9/11 boatlift rescued more than a half million men, women and children from lower Manhattan in about the length of an average work day.
Understandably overshadowed by the tragedy of the day’s events, it was an unplanned achievement made possible by unmatched cooperation. It was the kind of cooperation that we only seem to experience during the most challenging of times. The 9/11 boatlift initiated a short period when all Americans seemed fused in unity against a common, if not completely understood, enemy. Our political divisions seemed so petty. If only we could see such cooperation and unity without the backdrop of tragedy. We could certainly use more than a little bit of that spirit today.
Watch the 12-minute short movie BOATLIFT, at this link: