The book “Saved at the Seawall” by Jessica DuLong offers a history of the largest-ever waterborne evacuation — when the US Coast Guard called for tugboats, ferries and other vessels to transport nearly half a million people from Manhattan after the Sept. 11 attacks.
In this excerpt, DuLong tells the story of two of those boats’ captains.
New York Waterway Port Capt. Michael McPhillips had been standing in the wheelhouse of a ferryboat halfway across the river, when he noticed the South Tower begin to buckle. He’d already made eight round-trip runs ferrying passengers to New Jersey since the first plane hit, while also manning the radio and fielding questions.
At 9:45 a.m., when another captain offered to take the helm of the Frank Sinatra so that McPhillips could focus on operations, the overwhelmed port captain had gladly given up the wheel. He soon wound up conducting operations in the wheelhouse of a different ferry, the George Washington. Now, seeing the cloud exploding up and out from the shrinking South Tower, he barked out a warning to a captain who had been lining up for his approach to the World Financial Center terminal: “Get the f–k out of there!”
In an instant, the scale of the disaster had magnified, transforming the evacuation-in-progress into a full-blown rescue effort. The cloud rolling past the seawall blanketed the river’s surface and blinded boat captains, forcing them to navigate by radar alone. But sometimes even the radar couldn’t penetrate the particle-filled air.
Follow our 9/11 20th Anniversary coverage here:
“We were covered in dust,” said McPhillips. “The radar couldn’t see through the dust. We were pulling into the dock blind. We were leaving the dock blind. I don’t know how it happened, but it happened.”
New York Waterway Capt. Rick Thornton had departed the Battery just minutes before 10 a.m. and was steering north toward Hoboken. As they crossed the river, the crowd aboard ferryboat Henry Hudson — which was at, if not over, capacity — went quiet. Then a passenger announced he’d just heard the Pentagon had been hit. Panic spiraled through the crowd as people shouted into cellphones.
With both pilothouse doors open, Thornton could hear his passengers’ gasps and mutterings, their efforts to grasp the unfolding disaster. Some minutes later, as the boat plied past North Cove, cruising due west of the World Trade Center, Thornton heard a man’s voice rise above the din of frantic chatter: “They’re gonna collapse!”
Thornton rolled his eyes. This guy’s gonna cause a panic, he said to himself. They’re never gonna collapse. They’re just going to burn out the last upper floors and they’ll rebuild them.
Ten seconds later, the South Tower began to fold, casting a hush over the crowd.
“Everybody on the boat stopped talking, put their cellphones down, and just stared in awe. It was complete silence on the boat. You don’t get people off their cellphones,” explained Thornton. “Especially New Yorkers. Nobody screamed. Nobody made any kind of a noise. And it was the eeriest reaction you can imagine.” The smoke that erupted “was a nightmare.” It barreled north and Thornton watched people in the streets sprinting to try to outrun the cloud.
Passengers pushed to the starboard side to see what was happening, and the ferryboat took on a substantial list. The building “came down so majestically it was almost beautiful,” said Thornton. “It was beautiful but also terrible to behold.”
His first thought was of the firefighters. Though he said he’s not religious, he instinctively made a sign of the cross, apprehending that “tens, hundreds, thousands, I didn’t know how many people, but their lives had just winked out at that very instant.” And then he put both hands back on the wheel.
“As all the people were streaming off the boat, every one of them thanked us profusely, thank you, thank you, thank you. As they walked by, they said, ‘What are you guys going to do now?’
“‘We’re going back in there.’ At that time the first tower collapsed, it looked pretty much like hell on Earth. And the people were like, ‘I can’t believe you guys are going back in there.’ But, you know, that’s what we had to do.”
From the very first moments after the first plane hit, ferry crews had operated as ad hoc first responders. They didn’t stop after the South Tower fell. Injured people found their way to the waterfront and ferryboats continued to serve as floating ambulances.
Approximately 200 injured would end up transported aboard New York Waterway ferries by day’s end.
Despite the unprecedented scale of this disaster, mariners’ “jack of all trades” capabilities proved essential in the aftermath of the attacks. McPhillips had begun the morning as a port captain tracking boat schedules. But soon he was pulling glass shards from a man’s forearm and then wrapping it with gauze from the boat’s first aid kit to stanch the bleeding.
Given that 85 percent of our nation’s critical infrastructure is controlled not by government but by the private sector, the “first” first responders in most catastrophes, say disaster researchers, are most often civilians. Yet even as civilians, the boatmen and boatwomen of New York Harbor were particularly well equipped to serve the public in key ways.
Adapted from “Saved at the Seawall: Stories from the September 11 Boat Lift” (Three Hills/Cornell University Press) with permission from author Jessica DuLong.