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Remembering the Marine Workers Who Ferried New Yorkers to Safety on 9/11

September 10, 2021

Manhattan is an island. Never was that clearer than on September 11, 2001, when people fleeing the World Trade Center towers ran until they ran out of land.

The first transportation shutdowns—on a day when all bridges and tunnels connecting Manhattan to the rest of the world wound up closed—began one minute after the first plane hit. Initially, many thought the aircraft was a small plane, the collision a terrible accident. Even in that case, ferry crews knew their boats would provide necessary transport. That crash was, actually, of course, the first strike of the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

Within minutes, mariners began marshalling spontaneously along Manhattan’s shores. That day, crews aboard dinner boats, sightseeing vessels, sailing yachts, fishing fleets, tugs, and workboats of all kinds collaborated to rescue nearly half a million people. This entirely unplanned boat lift would become the largest-ever waterborne evacuation.

When I arrived at Ground Zero on September 12, I didn’t grasp that this history had been made in New York harbor. By then, vessels lining the seawall had shifted gears from ferrying people to running supplies and other critical support operations. I focused on my duties as engineer aboard retired 1931 New York City fireboat John J. Harvey, the former FDNY pumping vessel that had been called back into service the day before to help fight New York City’s most devastating fires. We supplied water to land-based firefighters for 80 hours after the towers collapsed.

Somehow, in the sea of reporting that followed the 9/11 attacks, the scale, scope, and success of the maritime evacuation went unrecognized. Still, two decades later, remarkably few people know this history…