9/11: Remembering the Heroes of the Lower Manhattan Boatlift

Image courtesy NYPD

Published Sep 11, 2021 12:36 AM by The Maritime Executive

20 years ago this Saturday, hijacked planes struck the World Trade Center in Manhattan and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. killing nearly 3,000 people. A fourth plane would have hit yet another target if the brave passengers on board had not forced it down on a field in Pennsylvania. The attacks shook America, and they set the stage for two decades of war in the Middle East.

At 0846 and 0903 hours on that fateful day, two Boeing 767 jetliners struck the Twin Towers in Lower Manhattan. Following evacuation orders, survivors streamed down the buildings' stairwells and out into the streets. At 0959, the South Tower collapsed, and the North Tower followed at 1028.

As first responders rushed to the scene, Mayor Rudy Giuliani ordered an evacuation of Lower Manhattan, and thousands attempted to flee to safety. Many headed out on foot to Brooklyn or Midtown, but hundreds of thousands were trapped down by the waterfront, cut off by a giant cloud of toxic smoke and dust. 

Dan Croce, a former Coast Guard officer, was working in Lower Manhattan that morning. When the second plane hit, he realized that a huge number of people would need to be evacuated by water. He made a call to USCG Activities New York and told the chief warrant officer who answered the phone that they would need a boatlift. That is exactly what happened: Under the leadership of Lt. Mike Day, local Coast Guard units marshalled a force of volunteer mariners to pick up survivors and carry them across the harbor to safety. 

“I looked out the window and saw the Pilot Boat New York heading towards Upper Bay and the Battery, leading a fleet of tugs and other small boats in what appeared to be a ‘V’ formation. I thought with tears in my eyes that they got my message and help was on the way!" Croce recalled in a recent interview.  

That boatlift picked up countless survivors from the water's edge near Wall Street and delivered them to safety in New Jersey. The flotilla quickly grew to include five cutters, 12 Coast Guard patrol boats and over 100 civilian vessels. Altogether, some 800 mariners rescued about 500,000 people from the waterfront. It was the largest waterborne evacuation of all time - even larger than the Dunkirk evacuation of World War II - and for days afterwards, many of these mariners kept going, bringing supplies and fuel to the responders at ground zero.

To honor their heroism and to remember the fallen, a group of American maritime organizations held a vessel procession past Lower Manhattan on Friday. The event was organized by the American Maritime Partnership (AMP), the Navy League, the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, the Sandy Hook Pilots and many others. With Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand in attendance, dozens of tugs, ferries and other vessels joined the procession - including vessels that were present on the day of the attacks. 

“Within minutes of the call for help, American maritime vessels of all shapes and sizes responded selflessly and ensured that the events on that fateful day were not even worse. The American Maritime Partnership remembers and mourns all Americans lost that day, and expresses its deepest gratitude to the men and women of American Maritime for their selfless response and service," said AMP in a statement.

Legacy of change

The legacy of 9/11 and the Lower Manhattan boatlift can be seen in dozens of large-scale changes enacted over the past two decades, like the creation of the Department of Homeland Security; the swift enactment of the IMO International Ship and Port Facility Security Code; the launch of the U.S. Coast Guard's Maritime Safety and Security Teams (MSSTs); and even the design of vessels that serve the New York harbor. The new ferries and fireboats that the city has purchased over the last decade are built to handle mass evacuations and shoreside firefighting, according to Eastern Shipbuilding Group, the yard behind the city's new Ollis-class ferries. 

On the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. we remember and honor the victims - the 2,977 people who died, the 6,000 who were injured, and the thousands of first responders and civilians who suffered health effects from Ground Zero dust - but we also celebrate the heroism of mariners at their best. Knowing the risks, the men and women of New York's working waterfront answered the call, and they saved countless lives.