As one of America’s greatest tragedies unfolded 20 years ago, killing thousands and triggering shock and panic throughout Manhattan and the other boroughs, a memorable rescue effort took place over water.
Along the City’s shores, the maritime community banded together to evacuate an estimated 400,000 people on the day the Twin Towers were struck down.
Karen Lacey was escaping the lower Manhattan waterfront and moving closer to the cold Hudson River. Covered in dust and ash, fearful for her life from falling debris, Lacey attempted to escape by jumping into the water.
Struggling to keep herself afloat, Lacey desperately fought against the current, with her clothes being drenched and her Coach bag weighing her down. Smoke filled the air, suffocating her as she fought for her life in the cold water.
Just when all seemed hopeless for Lacey, a voice sounded out from the smog.
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“Is there anyone in the water?”
Miraculously, Lacey was spotted by firefighters from the fireboat John D. McKean, who then pulled her up. In the end, she was saved from a watery grave, rescued as part of a larger operation to evacuate everyone across the waterfront.
In a scene almost reminiscent of the Dunkirk evacuations during the Second World War, more than a hundred ships and boats made their way to the waterfront; captains and crews raced to collect the thousands of people fleeing the tragedy.
Minutes after the north tower was hit, the rescue effort began; in what was to be known as the 9/11 boatlift.
Among the captains leading the charge, New York charter boat captain Greg Freitas was fresh from a night of entertaining clients on his boat, the Adirondack, when he saw the first tower of the World Trade Center up in smoke on television.
Panicked, the captain raced for the pier and boarded his boat to help out with the rescue effort, joining fellow captain Sean Kennedy.
“Responding is who we are and what we do as captains,” Freitas said.
Then came a call from Lt. Michael Day of the U.S. Coast Guard, asking for “all available boats” to answer the call to arms and help any way they could.
Heroes of the coast
Boat and ship captains from across the state saw the smoke rising from the towers, racing to help rescue as many people as they could. When they arrived, they bore witness to the pandemonium of civilians hurrying along the bays to escape the havoc.
“In the beginning, people were running like ants off the end (of the city) into the water,” said fishing boat captain James Schneider from Long Island, who dropped his passengers in Huntington, New York, with the help of police officers, firefighters and other fishermen.
“People were running down to the piers to get on a ferry, to get out of there,” said ferry captain Richard Naruszewicz of The Finest. “Crowds and crowds of people pushing to get on.”
James Parese, captain of the Staten Island Ferry Samuel I, decided to send the evacuees to Staten Island instead of Manhattan. Fearing that his vessel was a terrorist target, he sailed as inconspicuously as he could to drop passengers at St. George.
As they signalled to all vessels to provide aid, the Coast Guard and the Sandy Hook Pilots provided air traffic control, guiding vessels towards their chosen spots. Former Coast Guard Commander Frank Fiumano is still asked by new Coast Guard members what 9/11 was like.
“You try to reflect to them that it was a horrible day, but yet a day of unbelievable camaraderie and unbelievable coming together,” said Fiumano. “And may that spirit continue forever and ever and ever.”
Aftermath of 9/11
After the rescue operation concluded, the aftermath of 9/11 continued to affect the lives of those in the evacuation.
Former captain Tony Moyet was diagnosed with emphysema in 2018, suffering from a crippling cough linked to the conditions of the events. Living on artificial oxygen every day, he had only months to live. Thanks to the World Trade Center Health Program, he received a lung transplant on July 4.
Karen Lacey found herself in a ‘completely changed world’ as she recuperated from her harrowing experience, reuniting with her husband after he also fled via ferry.
“He got on the lines for the regular ferry, and I said, ‘You know, the fireboat was much quicker,’” she joked.
In 2008, James Schneider was visited by a woman and her daughter; the former recognized him as the captain who saved her when she was pregnant.
“I thought I was going to lose the baby that day, and I just wanted to thank you guys,” the woman said.
The triumph recognized over time
Despite the heroic deeds of the maritime community, the Great Boatlift of 9/11 has often been overlooked by the central events at Ground Zero. While news outlets mentioned the stories at the waterfront, they got very little coverage.
“The media in this city generally isn’t looking at the water,” said founder Carolina Salguero of PortSide NewYork, who was frustrated that the story was ‘underplayed’ and wished to spread awareness of the event.
An 11-minute documentary called “Boatlift,” narrated by Tom Hanks, brought this evacuation effort new life in the media. Author Jessica DuLong’s book “Saved at the Seawall,” also documents the events of the boatlift from the perspective of dozens of eyewitnesses.
On Sept. 10, 2021, the 9/11 Boatlift 20th Anniversary Tribute was hosted in Battery Park, commemorating the ordinary people who came to help those in need, and reminding us that you don’t need to be an official rescue worker to help save lives; all you need to do is a heart of gold and the courage to jump in and lend a hand.