Dunkirk in Manhattan: the 9/11 boat evacuations
April 3, 2013 2:12 PM   Subscribe

The 12-minute 2011 documentary "Boat Lift: An Untold Tale of 9/11 Resilience", vividly depicts one of the lesser-known aspects of September 11th: the evacuation by water of over 500,000 people, and the largest evacuation by water in history.
posted by scrump (26 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Interesting story.

Warning: YouTube comments.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 2:29 PM on April 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Watching now. There is, as you might imagine, some pretty disturbing footage in this documentary (buildlings falling after the 3:00 mark).
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 2:55 PM on April 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

I was one of the evacuees.

In 2001, I lived in Hoboken, NJ, and was working in a building across the street from the WTC site. I got the hell out of the area as quickly as I could (I was riding the subway when the towers fell), and I eventually made my way to the 39th St. ferry terminal, as all the bridges and tunnels were shut down at that point. Since it was one of the only ways out of the city, the line stretched for blocks.

Fortunately, right next door to the regular commuter ferries was the Circle Line, whose cruise ships were commandeered to be part of the evacuation. Once we started boarding, the lines moved pretty quickly, and I was soon on my way. I remember the boat listing, because so many people were trying to look out the port side of the ship and see what was happening downtown -- it was just a big plume of smoke at this point.

I got off the boat in Weehawken, and walked home to Hoboken. It wasn't much later than 2pm by the time I got home, which is pretty freaking amazing, since many of my coworkers were stuck in the city for hours, and some didn't leave at all.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 2:58 PM on April 3, 2013 [21 favorites]

"Warning: YouTube comments."


"Half a million people boatlifted with no government assistance! Imagine that. Just normal people doing the right thing, just helping each other."

Well someone's going to be surprised at what the Coast Guard that organized this works for, what regulates the radio channels this was organized by, what built the piers and sea walls that these boats evacuated people from, what licensed all of these small vessel operators ensuring their competence, what built the piers people were evacuated to, what ensured the navigability of the Hudson and East rivers, what established the rules of the road that prevented collisions, and what invented much of the technology that made those boats run.
posted by Blasdelb at 3:01 PM on April 3, 2013 [88 favorites]

Great watch. Love the caption of the Amberjack; reminds me of my old landlord, one of those real New Yawk guys. Thanks for posting.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 3:05 PM on April 3, 2013

I was in midtown, well out of the awfulness. I walked to the piers, got on the enormous line, and talked with some tv production people for the two hours it took to get on a boat. In Weehawken, there were lots of buses going to various places, but none as far as I needed to go, so I went to Hoboken and took the train to Morristown.
Everyone was nice and calm and considerate and unhurried (and not a little dazed). Money was unused. It was a short visit to the land of real grown-ups.
posted by hexatron at 3:22 PM on April 3, 2013 [5 favorites]

I had absolutely no idea that the evacuation of lower Manhattan was actually bigger than Dunkirk.
posted by fremen at 3:30 PM on April 3, 2013

It is a great and moving story.

Bit uncomfortable with the Dunkirk comparisons, though; in terms of people moved, yes, more were moved in Manhattan. In any other way - well, I don't think the comparison is fair on those involved in either.
posted by Devonian at 4:41 PM on April 3, 2013 [8 favorites]

Both evacuations were conducted by citizen and non-military sailors under extremely urgent conditions with little or no prior planning.

And then there's the scale: both the Dunkirk and 9/11 evacuations were so large that their only effective comparisons are to each other.

I respect your objections, but I stand by my choice.
posted by scrump at 4:58 PM on April 3, 2013 [5 favorites]

Great story. I wasn't even aware of the enormity of this. Thanks for sharing it.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 5:20 PM on April 3, 2013

ThePinkSuperhero: Watching now. There is, as you might imagine, some pretty disturbing footage in this documentary (buildlings falling after the 3:00 mark).
Thanks for the warning TPS. As the kind of person who can't really watch that scene, I felt it was okay. Just a couple of seconds of ZapruderVision™ and nothing that triggered me.

However, if scenes of regular people doing their bit under extraordinary circumstances make you cry like they do me… consider giving it a pass. Even so, thank you, scrump.
posted by ob1quixote at 5:25 PM on April 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Wow, that is an extremely worthwhile 12 minutes. Great find. The footage of the boats of all different sizes converging on the tip of a smoking Manhattan was particularly moving.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:16 PM on April 3, 2013

I saw the first tower hit on Fox and Friends. I lived on 10th street in the East Village at the time. I thought a look-see from the roof would be a good idea, and by the time I got up there the second plane had already hit.

I felt I needed to get outside, so I walked to Cooper Union park and sat on one of the benches trying to make sense of things and wondering where my brother was.

Then a homosexual man approached me. He had been drawing my portrait. I told him it looks like George Bush. He laughed and apologized for his poor drawing skills.

It was obvious that he was hitting on me. But I am not a homosexual. So I bid him adieu and went looking for my brother.
posted by Birchpear at 7:03 PM on April 3, 2013

Blasdelb gets it right. Of course, the ferry guys have their hands in the public's pocket.

New York Waterway, once the largest and most politically powerful ferry operator on the Hudson River, agreed yesterday to pay $1.2 million to settle civil charges that it overbilled the government millions of dollars in providing commuter services after the Sept. 11 attack.
posted by mahorn at 8:10 PM on April 3, 2013

One of my friends was a tug operator in this lift, and has been sharing it on 9/11 since it was made (2010?). It's fantastic.

My mom, a newspaper editor, was at the other end, at the piers in NJ, interviewing the stunned people debarking in silence, covered in white dust.

What Blasdelb notes is true: this was only possible and only feasible because of the constant ready state of maritime New York Bay, and the great talent and experience of the vessel operators, whose qualifying courses, required logged sea time, regular service and frequent inspections and drills make it possible for them to come up with a clear plan of action and work together to execute it, no matter what's going on.
posted by Miko at 8:13 PM on April 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

That blip of footage. I thought I'd be ok. But I'm not. What a dark time that was for so many of us.
posted by anthropoid at 8:45 PM on April 3, 2013

Bit uncomfortable with the Dunkirk comparisons, though; in terms of people moved, yes, more were moved in Manhattan. In any other way - well, I don't think the comparison is fair on those involved in either.

Agreed -- despite the similarities, Dunkirk prevented that army from being taken prisoner, and was done under enemy fire, much of the travel at night in rough seas.

No slight to anyone in this boatlift, of course: they did not know the danger they faced (which in reality was minimal), and the people they helped deserved a compassionate response. It just doesn't feel like it was the same thing at all. I do think the documentary set the right tone, though, with its focus on the people helping people aspect.
I say this as someone who once worked in WTC and traveled PATH daily while I lived there. Some of those rescued were probably coworkers, a few perhaps neighbors.

I found some raw footage, by the way. It starts out looking at the towers, but there's lingering shots of stunned people boarding boats later.

Warning: YouTube comments.

My life has been immeasurably improved by herp derp YouTube comments.
posted by dhartung at 12:25 AM on April 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

The comparison between this and Dunkirk is pretty troubling, tens of thousands died on the beaches in 1940 and Operation Dynamo was very much a planned military operation as much as 'the miracle of the little ships' remains a potent myth and folk memory of the war.

(Not that this wasn't an impressive feat and a testament to the community spirit of New Yorkers)
posted by brilliantmistake at 12:48 AM on April 4, 2013

Wow, this brings it all back vividly. I was also working in New York and living in Hoboken at the time. I watched the towers fall from my office, dithered about whether to stay in the city or try to get home. There were no clear answers about what was open and running and what was not -- even landline telephone service was disrupted. I remember going to cnn.com and finding the page completely blank except for the headline "US under attack" and thinking, well, that's really fucking helpful. I decided to start walking to the 39th St ferry landing.

The walk to the landing was odd. The subways weren't running and there wasn't any auto traffic other than emergency vehicles. The streets were brimming with people on their way to the west side -- no outward panic, but very purposeful movement. Pedestrians had overflowed the sidewalks and were moving down the streets themselves in a thick mass. It reminded me of leaving Yankee Stadium. It was an absolutely gorgeous day, warm and blue-skied.

The line at the ferry was daunting, switchbacked for many blocks. Looking at it, it did not seem possible that I could get on a ferry for ten or fifteen or thirty hours. I considered turning around and staying at a friend's apartment instead. But since I'd walked all the way over there I decided to try and stunningly, that goddam line moved. I was jogging to keep up at times! In less than 2 hours I was aboard a NY Waterway ferry.

Once on the boat, I sat down and exhaled, grateful to be leaving Manhattan behind and knowing I could easily walk home once I got to the other side. My fellow passengers were very clearly divided into two groups: the clean folks like me from Midtown office buildings, and people from downtown, entirely covered in beige dust from head to toe. We all sat dazed and silent on the ferry, staring at the plumes of smoke coming up from the WTC site.

Just before we got to the dock in Hoboken, passengers on the NYC side of the boat started screaming "Oh my god! Another one! Another one!", and we watched as World Trade Center #7 collapsed. The passengers, who had been largely focused and stoic to this point, lost their collective shit. The events of the morning had been beyond horrific, but at least they seemed over. When #7 went down many onboard were convinced that the attack was still ongoing. Cell service was knocked out, and of course no mobile internet yet, so we really didn't know what was going on.

When the boat docked, we were greeted by EMTs. People covered in dust from downtown were shunted down a corridor to be medically evaluated. The rest of us were sent through the terminal, where long tables had been set up to distribute ripple chips in dixie cups. I have spent a lot of time since that day wondering about those chips -- were they donated by a local merchant? Or does Uncle Sam maintain a vast silo of Ruffles for emergency deploy? Why rippled? Are they tactically superior in some way? Many questions.
posted by apparently at 2:05 AM on April 4, 2013 [20 favorites]

Bit uncomfortable with the Dunkirk comparisons, though; in terms of people moved, yes, more were moved in Manhattan. In any other way - well, I don't think the comparison is fair on those involved in either.

There's no shame in comparing this to Dunkirk; it was done in the same spirit of spontaneous cooperation and desire to do something in the aftermath of a horrendous tragedy.
posted by MartinWisse at 7:24 AM on April 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Another shout out to the the constant ready state of maritime New York Bay: I had a view of Sully's ditched airplane, which was swarmed with boats moments after it hit the water.
posted by whuppy at 7:31 AM on April 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

It seems to me that the value of the Dunkirk analogy is mostly to whipsnap our brains from something that is not really a big part of our collective memory of that day to something that is compared to a scale we understand.
posted by dry white toast at 9:23 AM on April 4, 2013

This was very moving to me. Surprising how raw things still are when you reconnect - and I am not even a New Yorker. Thanks to all who shared their memories.

If only it did not take life threatening emergencies to make us recognize and appreciate our shared humanity. If there was any silver lining to that terrible event, it was the kindness of strangers to one another.
posted by madamjujujive at 4:25 PM on April 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Wow, this is amazing. Thank you for the post, scrump.
posted by torticat at 8:00 PM on April 4, 2013

I watched 12 hours of 9/11 footage, and then I went to work and listened to the radio, and came home and watched another 12 hours, and I was talking via IRC to chums in New York, and I had no idea this happened.

Interesting post.
posted by Mezentian at 10:48 AM on April 5, 2013

Great post.

Hanks mentions Dunkirk, which is quite amazing in its own right. I don't say this to belittle anyone or anything from this 9/11 event - I respect everyone involved deeply.

But Dunkirk is a fascinating story. For one thing, it happened 61 years before 9/11, and for another, it wasn't a river the boats were crossing but a channel. In a time of all-out war - with the very real risk of German U-boats being in the same waters the small boats went out on.

Anyway, from an article I found when researching the story at one point:

In early 1940 the British and their allies sent a force of some 350,000 men into the low countries of Europe to stem the tide of German advance into France, Belgium and Holland. Caught in a brilliant pincer movement by the invading German forces the beleaguered British Expeditionary Force was pushed back to the beaches of the small Belgian town of Dunkirk. To everyone’s surprise the Germans halted their advance to regroup. As England and the world waited for what appeared to be the sure and certain annihilation of 350,000 men a three word message was transmitted from the besieged army at Dunkirk. It read simply, "But if not." The British people understood the biblical import of the cryptic message. It was a reference to the Old Testament book of Daniel, where Daniel and his friends chose death rather than worship an image of the pagan king, "If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up" (Daniel 3:17-18). The British Expeditionary Army, surrounded, cutoff and on the brink of destruction was declaring to Britain and to the world that even in apparent defeat they were, in fact, victorious. The message, more eloquent than a sermon delivered in St. Paul’s Cathedral, galvanized the British people. In a matter of hours thousands of boats of every description headed across the dangerous waters of the English Channel and, at the risk of their own lives from enemy fire, began the evacuation of the heroic but beleaguered army in what historians now refer to as "the miracle of Dunkirk."
posted by allkindsoftime at 10:55 AM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

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