All at once the air turned “a very weird color, like a greenish grey,” recalls Staten Island Ferry Captain James Parese.
At that moment he was sprinting across the upper deck of the Samuel I. Newhouse, preparing to pull the ferryboat away from the slip at the southern tip of Manhattan, when a blanket of gypsum dust, smoke, and ash blotted out the sun. The boat was filled with passengers desperate to evacuate the island — some panicked and crying, some bleeding, some with no shoes — and now they scrambled for life preservers, thinking the boat was on fire. It was one minute before 10am on September 11, 2001, and the World Trade Center’s south tower had just collapsed.
Parese’s eyes and throat started to burn, and for a moment he questioned his decision to leave the safety of Staten Island to set out on this rescue mission. “I remember looking out towards Jersey and I couldn’t see anything.” But when pieces of white plastic began drifting down from the sky, it reminded him of snow and he felt suddenly serene.
“You know when you’re a kid and you’re walking in that gentle snow and it’s very quiet and peaceful? That’s kind of what it brought me back to. … I was completely calm at that point. … All I could do was focus.” As the captain steered the 300-foot, 3,335-ton ferry into a harbor crowded with other vessels, navigating by radar with zero visibility, the lives of thousands of distraught passengers depended on that focus. Parese drew upon decades of experience as a mariner, a profession where the notion that panic leads to peril is as deeply ingrained as the tradition of helping those need.
At that time, I was still learning the basics about boats and what it meant to be a mariner. At 28 years old, I had stumbled, by blissful accident, aboard a retired 1931 New York City fireboat, now operating as a living museum, and begun a hands-on, engine-room apprenticeship of the sort so few still exist in this country.