America Remembers 9/11 and the Manhattan Boatlift

Coast Guard
Image courtesy USCG

Published Sep 11, 2023 8:17 PM by The Maritime Executive

On Sept. 11, 2001, hijacked planes struck the World Trade Center in Manhattan and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. killing nearly 3,000 people. Another plane was on its way to a target when the passengers forced it down in a field in Pennsylvania, sacrificing their lives to save others. The attacks reverberated across America and the rest of the world, and the U.S. military spent the next decade hunting down those responsible.

22 years have passed, and the terrorists who planned 9/11 have been defeated, but America has not forgotten that terrible day - nor the heroism of the men and women who risked their lives to rescue survivors. Every year, vigils are held at the site of each attack to memorialize the fallen. 

"[Remembrance] is how we truly honor those we lost on 9/11," said President Joe Biden, speaking at an airbase in Alaska on Monday. "By remembering what we can do together. To remember what was destroyed, what we repaired. What was threatened, that we fortified."

At the Pentagon, First Lady Jill Biden joined Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley in laying a wreath at the site's 9/11 memorial. 

"As the years go by, it may feel that the world is moving on or even forgetting what happened here on Sept. 11, 2001," Secretary Austin said. "But please know this: The men and women of the Department of Defense will always remember."

Remembering the Manhattan Boatlift 

When two jets hit the Twin Towers on the morning of September 11, 2001, survivors streamed out of the buildings and into the streets. At 0959, the South Tower collapsed, and the North Tower followed at 1028.

As first responders rushed to the scene, thousands of people attempted to flee Lower Manhattan. Those who could reach the bridges headed for Brooklyn, while others fled north for Midtown. The cloud of toxic ash and dust from the collapsed towers trapped hundreds of thousands of survivors in Lower Manhattan, cut off from the rest of the island and waiting for some form of rescue. 

That rescue was already getting under way. Under the leadership of Lt. Mike Day, local Coast Guard units organized a force of more than 100 good samaritan boats and five Coast Guard cutters to pick up survivors and carry them across the harbor to safety. Working from the deck of the pilot boat New York, Lt. Day and his crew organized dozens of boats into impromptu "routes," sending them to and from specific points on the waterfront. That boatlift picked up thousands of people from the water's edge near Wall Street and delivered them to New Jersey. Over the course of about 10 hours, 800 mariners rescued roughly 500,000 people from the waterfront - making it the largest waterborne evacuation of all time.

Lt. Day and other Coast Guard leaders detailed their stories at the Surface Navy Association symposium earlier this year, providing a rare direct view of the scene on the waterfront and the intensity of the operation (video below).