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Hundreds of commuter ferries, tugboats, party boats, and even
historic sailing ships braved the chaos of 9/11 to deliver as many as
half a million souls from the clouds of toxic dust that engulfed Lower
Manhattan after the World Trade Center collapse.
A new book
sheds light on an oft-overlooked aspect of the aftermath of the
terrorist attacks of 9/11 — the massive waterborne evacuation of Lower
Manhattan undertaken that day largely by civilian vessels and sailors.
James Kendra and Tricia Wachtendorf, co-directors of the Disaster
Research Center at University of Delaware, compare the mass rescue
operation to the historic evacuation of more than 300.000 British troops
surrounded by the Nazis at Dunkirk in 1940, when an armada of
lifeboats, fishing vessels, and pleasure craft spontaneously sailed to
their rescue from across the English Channel.
Sixty years later, the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks
saw an even more massive operation, in which hundreds of commuter
ferries, tugboats, party boats, and even historic sailing ships braved
the chaos to deliver as many as half a million souls from the clouds of
toxic dust engulfing Downtown, as the authors describe in their book, “American Dunkirk.”
The mass-rescue operation, though nominally coordinated by the Coast
Guard, was largely ad hoc, with the skippers of individual vessels
making crucial decisions on the fly in response to the rapidly changing
conditions, according to the authors.
“What we saw was whether you were a member of the Coast Guard or the
captain of a tug boat, they were able to make sense of their
environment, and that’s part of the reason this improvised response
worked so well,” said Kendra.
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
Temple University Press
“American Dunkirk: The Waterborne Evacuation
of Manhattan on 9/11” by James Kendra and Tricia Wachtendorf is
published by Temple University Press.
The book relies on the first-hand accounts of local captains, including Captain
Patrick Harris, skipper of the nearly century-old Ventura sailing
yacht, which docks at Battery Park City’s North Cove Marina.
He and other captains described a cool and sunny day that began like
any other, but suddenly descended into a storm of dust, horror, and
long-hours scouring Lower Manhattan’s waterfront for survivors wandering
out of the dust cloud in a zombie-like daze.
Not long after the first plan hit the World Trade Center, Harris
sailed from Battery Park City’s North Cove Marina aboard his historic
sailboat to the South Street Seaport after hearing calls for aid on his
radio, but, finding the area deserted, he turned back towards the
Manhattan’s west coast. Then, as a northwest wind blew back the veil of
smoke, the captain bore witness to a spectacle he’s not likely to
forget, according to his account in “American Dunkirk.”
“I saw this V-shaped formation of about a half a dozen or so tugboats
charging up in this direction, and I remember at the time it just
reminded me of the old black-and-white footage you see of Pearl Harbor…
There was so much smoke you really couldn’t see that blue sky, And it
was actually very inspiring to see that, knowing those guys were going
in there and that’s where all the trouble was,” Harris told the book’s
“American Dunkirk” found its genesis in a study done by Kendra and
Wachtendorf, funded by the National Science Foundation and the
University of Delaware, to determine how unplanned, unscripted, and
entirely improvised activities could lead to highly successful relief
and evacuation efforts in the event of a major disaster.
In studying the 9/11 evacuation, they found that not only were
hundreds of thousands of stranded New Yorkers evacuated to safety, but
there were also no serious accidents or injuries as a result of that
evacuation, despite — or perhaps because — communications were handled
largely through civilian channels.
For instance, not only did the roughly 1,000 non-official vessels
conduct most of the evacuations, but the civilian craft were also
responsible for ferrying emergency personnel and materials into the
Commuter ferries pulled directly up to the Battery Park City
esplanade to load up panicked survivors for transport across the Hudson.
In that capacity, civilian captains were able to determine what
vessels were best suited to what task, along with where they would dock
and in what order — often with no oversight or logistical support from
government agencies, according to Wachtendorf.
“You had tugboats bringing in medical supplies and personnel, and it
was often up to the captains to figure out what vessels had what
capabilities,” she said. “The Coast Guard was involved in that
coordination, but it was very much coordinated amongst the captains
themselves. They had all the knowledge, and they were able to figure it
out, either by radio or by voice.”
The pair’s studies show that disasters are rarely single,
self-contained events able to be handled by one leader, however
competent, and are better described as a cascade of separate, related
emergencies that arise from the swift and sudden changes in
circumstances — as traffic shuts down, utilities cease to function, and
lines of communication drop dead — and that in the heat of the moment,
men and women of various walks of life can and should be trusted to use
their various skills to bring aid to those who need it.
“Disaster is not a single thing that one person can control — it’s a
community event,” said Kendra. “We saw an emphasis on, where there was
leadership, it was based on communication and coordination, and letting
things happen when they worked.”
The lesson of “American Dunkirk,” say the authors, is that officials
should recognize the experience, professionalism, and courage of
everyday New Yorkers — especially the grizzled old sea dogs who saved so
many on that otherwise dark day.
“In the boat evacuation, the fact that these were members of a
community who new each other, the environment, and their vessels very
well, they proved very effective in that situation,” said Kendra.
This story was originally posted here.