TowLine Magazine
TowLine Magazine

A TowLine Interview

Mark Schnapper
March 1, 2017

Jessica DuLong

The Chief Engineer, Journalist, and Author Is Writing a Book about the 9/11 Boatlift

September 11, 2016 marked the fifteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. As Americans honored the memory of the fallen, we once again stood as a nation united in solidarity and sympathy with the grieving. The observance was an occasion for reflection, on the nature of unity, courage, wisdom, and understanding.

These were indeed the virtues displayed in the 9/11 Boatlift, which stands as a historic reminder of the capacity of Americans to summon them. The story of the Boatlift, whose dimensions include the maritime community but also range well beyond it, has in recent years captured the attention of journalists and researchers, who have begun investigating a compelling question: How could a spontaneously, randomly mobilized group of citizens, working without a plan, have successfully orchestrated and executed the largest sealift evacuation in the history of the world?

Jessica DuLong is a journalist pursuing the story. She is also the chief engineer of the fireboat John J. Harvey, and was a 9/11 responder starting the day after the at- tacks. Her book will be one of the first to tell the full story of the Boatlift. TowLine’s editor-in-chief, Mark Schnapper, spoke with Chief Engineer DuLong about the Boatlift’s meanings and her book.

MS: Why do you think the full story of the boatlift needs to be told?

JD: For so many reasons. The stories of how boat crews and private citizens rose to the challenges of those harrowing hours bring an uplifting, silver-lining element to our understanding of the most horrific day in recent United States history. The maritime evacuation represents a phenomenon — mass heroism — that upends some common assumptions about human limitations, in ways that are heartening and instructive. It shows Americans at our very best, offering an antidote to divisiveness and fear — an especially good message for people to hear right now. It’s very significant that the rescuers displayed not only kindness, but also profound solidarity and resourcefulness. It’s also significant that although most were not technically trained as first responders, they turned what might easily have become a chaotic disaster into a model of efficiency and effectiveness.

MS: What qualifies the 9/11 boatlift as the largest in world history?

JD: The previous record-holder was Dunkirk, in the Second World War. In 1940, hundreds of naval and civilian vessels mustered to rescue 338,000 British and Allied soldiers over the course of nine days. But on September 11, 2001, boat crews evacuated an estimated 500,000 people from Lower Manhattan in less than nine hours.

MS: In researching the book, you’ve been interviewing rescuers and eyewitnesses; how many have you spoken with?

JD: So far, about 50. They include mariners and evacuees, civilians, military personnel, government officials, first responders, and volunteers.

MS: Based on their accounts, are you sensing any dominant themes in the story?

JD: The meanings are ever evolving; every time I sit with this material, new meanings surface. But one of the most important themes is that the rescue was totally unplanned. With all the perspective granted by hindsight, it’s difficult to grasp the levels of shock and threat that the rescuers confronted as the scope and scale of the attacks escalated that morning. Over the course of the first few hours, the closer people were to the action, the less they knew what was going on. Rumors were flying, and of course it was chaos. To understand the depth of the fear and confusion, you have to imagine being there and having no idea what could possibly happen next. That terrorists could fly planes into buildings and level them was inconceivable at the time. Yet, from the moment the first plane struck, mariners made a beeline into the danger zone and didn’t let up until they’d delivered everyone they could to safety. No drills or top-down oversight guided their actions; they and the other rescuers saw what needed to be done and found ways to make it happen.

MS: They just started thinking on their feet, despite the danger?

JD: Yes. All of the rescuers I’ve talked with said that they were just doing what needed to be done. A word that I often hear when I interview sources is “decent.” Everything came down to shared humanity; people who had the capacity to help helped in any way they could.

MS: So these otherwise ordinary citizens steeled themselves and improvised the orderly evacuation of half-a-million people? It sounds impossible.

JD: Yes. And in the years since, researchers like James Kendra and Tricia Wachtendorf [at the University of Delaware Disaster Research Center] have been studying how the boatlift came together and how it deviated from the traditional script of disaster preparedness, which emphasizes planning instead of improvisation. Their new book, American Dunkirk: The Waterborne Evacuation of Manhattan on 9/11, explores how lessons from that day can transform our ideas about disaster management. In particular, Jim and Tricia emphasize an “artful” and “flexible” approach to disaster response that involves putting faith in “unscripted, decentralized, and emergent” activities, rather than relying on advance planning that depends on a top-down structure. Their research suggests that creativity and improvisation are essential resources for dealing with disasters, and those skills are precisely what mariners brought to the evacuation and supply missions in Lower Manhattan.

MS: Can you give some specific examples of the creativity and improvisation Kendra and Wachtendorf referred to?

JD: Sure. The efficiency of the boatlift was astounding, especially when you consider that the whole operation was accomplished along a waterfront that, with few exceptions, was not set up to receive large vessels or to load passengers. The rescuers converged on key locations and simply made do as best they could. Along the Battery, where there was no place to tie up, tugboats nosed to the seawall and used engine power to hold their position while evacuees boarded. In some places deckhands tied boats to trees. Just south of North Cove [near the World Financial Center] a firefighter with the FDNY Marine Division used a torch to cut an opening in a steel railing to provide better access to and from a fireboat. In South Cove [just south of the World Trade Center site], an NYPD Harbor Unit sergeant systematically ripped off some wooden fencing that impeded evacuee access to boats. He went down the whole row, plucking fences off with his vessel, so that people could board more easily. Tug crews painted bed sheets to indicate their destinations so that evacuees could choose from among these makeshift “ferry” routes. And when the rescue operation shifted into a supply mission, the waterfront was transformed — it was teeming with people passing bags, boxes, and buckets down long lines from boats to land, harking back to the days of breakbulk cargo, when everything was loaded and unloaded by hand. Tools that people didn’t know they needed until the heat of the moment seemed to just materialize.

MS: How many vessels participated in the evacuation?

JD: A list compiled by the late Captain John Doswell recorded 156. They included ferryboats, water taxis, tugboats, dinner cruise and sightseeing vessels, fishing boats, yachts, Army Corps of Engineers vessels and other workboats.

MS: Was there any official organization, such as from the Coast Guard?

JD: Yes. By late morning the Coast Guard stepped in to try to streamline the rescue efforts already underway. They issued calls for “all available boats” to report to Governors Island. The operation was basically a mixture of ad hoc organizing by captains at the helm and people on shore, aided by administrative personnel and the Coast Guard’s Vessel Traffic Service (VTS), who helped coordinate logistics and information. But so much of the communicating, decision-making, and coordinating was done on the fly.

MS: What was VTS’s role?

JD: They were charged with securing the port. Seven minutes after the second plane hit, VTS issued radio calls on Channel 14 that shut down the port to all traffic. This was a huge, unprecedented undertaking. The VTS team then had to guide the 300 to 400 vessels of all sizes and configurations that had been operating in the harbor toward safe berthing and mooring locations. No small feat.

MS: The 2011 short documentary film “Boatlift” reported that there were no serious injuries attributed to the 9/11 boatlift. Nor were there any reported collisions, despite the sudden, unplanned surge in vessel traffic. Is this true?

JD: I’ve heard of remarkably few incidents given the size, scope, and spontaneous nature of the effort, and the fact that boats were at times operating only by radar, given the smoke conditions. Sources told me about some non–life threatening injuries, as well as one woman who likely died from a head injury, sustained when panicked evacuees jumped onto boats from high distances. But, to my knowledge, there were no injuries or collisions attributed to the actions of vessels, crews, shoreside rescuers, or the vast majority of evacuees.

MS: What do you think might account for that?

JD: The mariners brought tremendous professionalism and experience to the tasks at hand. Many of the captains had knowledge of the local waterways, and in the  accounts I’ve heard the boat crews were highly competent. Crews who’d had emergency training performed triage and administered first aid. Many vessels served double duty as makeshift ambulances, assuring the injured priority when disembarking and coordinating their handoff to ambulances on shore.

MS: Did the mariners bend the rules on passenger capacity?

JD: Well, that answer depends on whom you ask! But, by many ac- counts captains loaded their vessels beyond allowed capacities, and at least in some instances they said they had the Coast Guard’s blessing to do so, within limits. The crews estimated how many people they could take aboard before risking unsafe running.

MS: What about the evacuees — were they able to maintain crowd control and composure in such dire circumstances?

JD: Everyone of course panicked in and around Ground Zero when the towers collapsed — in addition to the danger of falling rubble, the collapses created intermittent whiteout conditions and unbreathable air at certain locations, depending on which way the wind was blowing. People scattered and fled in different directions. They were running, but I haven’t heard of any stampeding or trampling. Generally speaking, people exhibited incredible perseverance and presence of mind, including when they were in crowds.

MS: What was their demeanor like as they boarded the boats?

JD: My sources say that people were extraordinarily polite and patient — even well into the evening, when there were incredibly long lines. People working at the ferry slips just north of North Cove reported that part of the reason there wasn’t panic was that the ferries were so quick in coming back. The ferry companies had pulled as many vessels into service as they could. So as quickly as a boat would load up and depart, another would come and load, and seeing that gave people confidence. One captain told me about an instance where he nosed forward toward a sea wall in order to rescue someone who was clinging to a slippery piling in the water, and when the boat got close enough to the land side, people just started streaming aboard, ignoring the fact that it wasn’t docked. But I also learned of people who were not able to make the climb over to a boat, and were then carefully passed hand-to-hand by the waiting crowd in order to get them on board.

MS: How did things go once the vessels were underway?

JD: People were generally composed, and there was an outpouring of gratitude. Some people talked about what they’d seen or heard; others were silent. Some cried and gasped as the boats pulled out into the harbor and people caught their first glimpses of the destruction in Lower Manhattan. Some captains told me that their boats listed noticeably when too many passengers gathered on one side of the vessel,  hoping to see what was going on at Ground Zero — the captains had to compensate at the helm to maintain a more even keel.

MS: And the evacuation went on until nightfall?

JD: Yes. There was no hard stop; I’m not sure anyone knows what time the last evacuee disembarked, and with the evacuation completed, many vessels kept up their runs, ferrying responders, equipment and supplies to Ground Zero.

MS: You’ve now been involved in the story as both a journalist and responder; has writing the book changed you in any way?

JD: In every way. For years now I’ve been deeply immersed in the story of how new, often unlikely alliances formed on September 11th, during this massive, spontaneous rescue where people who could help their fellow citizens did so, without hesitation. The stories in the book illuminate the resounding human goodness that rises up in the face of the darkest evil. Knowing that such compassion and creativity can occur on that kind of scale tends to widen your perspective about a lot of things.