The emergency exit door slammed behind us, and I struggled to adjust to the bright sunlight after the dark stairwell. The sickening scent of something electrical burning filled my nostrils. Pieces of paper fluttered down like confetti at a ticker tape parade. Emergency vehicles screamed past as they sped up the West Side Highway.
Brian and I paused for a moment, catching our breath and trying to calm Gaby, our dog. As I watched men and women in suits and skirts sprinting past us, I suddenly realized I had no idea what I was wearing. I looked down: a pink knee-length cotton nightgown. Seeing a passenger jet slam into the South Tower of the World Trade Center had panicked me so much that I had run down 24 flights of stairs barefoot and in my pajamas. Regaining a slight bit of sanity, I turned to go back inside to get dressed, but the emergency door had locked.
Standing barefoot on the sidewalk, feeling ever more vulnerable, I soon realized no one was going to notice what I was wearing. Everyone was in a panic, rushing directly into traffic, dodging cars, leaping over cement dividers. Abandoned briefcases, books, eyeglasses, purses, and shoes littered the street. “Here, wear my shoes,” my husband said as he sat down. “No, no,” I protested. “But let me wear your socks.” He peeled off his socks, I put them on, and walked in a little circle. “These are fine!” I said, not wanting him to worry.
Forgetting my state of undress, I began plotting our next move, relying on my years of experience as a New York City tour guide to determine how to get as far away as possible from the World Trade Center. We were on the narrow southern tip of the island of Manhattan. Several roads led north, but they would take us right past the burning towers.
“Brian, we have to get to Battery Park!”
Brian tightened his grip on Gaby’s leash and grabbed my hand. Hopscotching through traffic, we dodged ambulances and fire trucks on the West Side Highway. Finally, we broke through the last lane of traffic and stumbled into the haven of Battery Park.
We joined a crowd gathered on the park’s northern border, watching more people arriving every moment. As soon as they reached the park, the newcomers would turn to look at the burning towers, a quarter mile away. Both were engulfed in huge black columns of smoke that made them look even taller and more formidable. Ripples of panic would wash through the crowd every time someone shouted rumors of more planes in the air or speculation about potential additional targets.
Without warning, the ground began to shake, and a terrifying, otherworldly cracking sound of an avalanche filled my ears. Thousands of people began shrieking in terror as we realized that the unthinkable was happening: “A tower is falling!”
People scattered like mice, sprinting blindly in every direction, dodging trees, hurdling over bushes, and catapulting over railings. The park had become a giant obstacle course. I froze in terror as a mass of something hit me in the face. It felt like someone had thrown a bucket of sticky sand over me: gunk filled my nose and mouth, covered my pajamas, and coated every pore of my unprotected skin.
I opened my eyes slowly, trying to protect them from whatever was on my eyelids. Brian hadn’t moved, but he looked completely different — like an upright mummy.
“What is this? Where’d it come from?” I sputtered, spitting out gunk.
“I think it’s the tower,” Brian said. I looked around as dust filled the air. I felt like I was trapped inside a yellow-hued snow globe.
We turned and ran south until we arrived at the water’s edge. We had run out of room to run. As we looked out onto the harbor that stretched before us, others sank to the ground in anguish or continued to run around in a senseless hysteria. One man ran past us and leapt over the banister at the edge of the park, ready to dive into the deep water.
Tugging on Brian’s shirt, I asked, “Hey, what do you think? Could we swim it?” I gazed across the relatively calm waters.
“Governor’s Island is probably a mile away,” Brian said. “I’m not sure we could swim that far.”
“Yeah, and anyway, we have Gaby,” I said, looking at our now-yellow Boston terrier, who was desperately trying to lick the dust off his black fur.
“Hey, what about the Staten Island Ferry?” We turned left and hurried toward the terminal, and my heart lifted when we spied the giant orange vessel docked in the ferry slip. We joined the tail end of a crowd bottlenecking at the glass entrance doors, but as we approached the terminal, a man burst out of the nearby exit. “It’s not running! It’s been abandoned!”
Devastated, we stopped in our tracks, unsure what to do next, when the crowd began shrieking again. The wind had changed direction, blowing thick clouds of smoke toward us. I held my thin cotton nightgown over my nose and mouth but inhaled soot and smoke with every breath. The smoke stream from the towers stretched all the way south to the terminal, completely engulfing it. The thick wall of deadly smoke threatened to asphyxiate us all, cutting off any path that led east. As we hesitated, the crowd that had been pushing to get to the ferry terminal reversed to escape this new threat. Afraid we would be trampled, we turned and tried to outrun the pack.
We ran west, away from the smoke, until Brian suddenly veered north, heading toward the old Castle Clinton fort. We hugged its stone wall, trying to catch our breath. Gaby flopped on the ground, exhausted. We couldn’t bear to go further north as each step beyond the fort meant a step closer to the epicenter of danger. We were running out of options.
“Brian, is this it? Are we going to die?”
He hesitated, then looked me in the eye. “I don’t know . . . maybe,” he said. He took my hands in his and began praying out loud. The cries of people near us filled my ears. Barefoot, covered in yellow dust, my husband and I said good-bye to each other.
But after resting for a few minutes, Brian had another idea. Holding his shirt over his nose and mouth, he said, “Let’s move up the coastline. If we stick to the Battery Park Esplanade, maybe we can walk our way out of this.”
I followed Brian and Gaby up the waterfront, passing the rotting Pier A at the northwestern edge of Battery Park and crossing into Wagner Park, where we suddenly caught glimpses of a pristine blue sky. Upwind of the smoke and the ceiling of yellow dust, the air was clear. Near the Museum of Jewish Heritage, on the shore of the Hudson River, we saw about 50 people gathered around two large weeping willow trees. We had gone as far as possible, our escape route to the north blocked by the North Cove Yacht Harbor and World Financial Center, just across the street from the World Trade Center.
It was just as well; we were too exhausted to go another step. Brian and I sank down on the lawn under one of the willows, which I had always loved. Now, sticky grime covered their long branches, making them look like ghoulish Halloween decorations.
Suddenly a dust-caked man appeared, yelling, and waving his arms as he ran toward us. “The second building is coming down! Run to the river and turn your backs to it!”
We leapt to our feet and ran to the bank of the Hudson, crouching low to the ground next to a curved railing. If the tower fell in this direction, we would be right in its path. Within moments, the second tower collapsed with another thunderous roar. We hunkered down, waiting for the fallout—for the cloud of gunk and dust—but it never came.
We slowly regrouped with the others who had taken cover near us, lingering next to the railing and looking out at the Hudson River. There was nowhere else to go.
Fire boats were zooming up the Hudson. As they passed, people in the crowd would yell at them, begging them to stop and help us. As the boats zoomed on by, seemingly oblivious, terror began turning into rage.
One businessman with torn pants and a bloodied, white shirt shook his fist in the air and screamed, “Come over here and f***ing get us!” Watching such rage just made me feel more hopeless. Then I noticed a line of people forming farther down the path we had been following. “Brian, look over there. What’s that about?”
He squinted. “Not sure. I can’t tell from here.”
I gazed out into the river and recognized the outline of a tugboat. I watched as it got closer and closer to the shore — much closer than the fire boats that had been passing.
“Oh my gosh, I think that boat’s coming to dock!” Brian exclaimed.
The tugboat approached the railing and men threw ropes to secure the boat. Brian and I ran to join the line of people near the boat, but I quickly realized it was way too small to take all of us. After loading about 50 people, the tugboat backed up and left.
We had no other plans for getting off the island, so we decided to stay where we were and hope the tugboat would return. I sat down, ready for a long wait.
But it was only a few minutes before we saw another, much bigger boat approaching. It was a large white NY Waterway boat, a ferry that travels between New York and New Jersey. And it was coming to get us!
As it pulled up alongside the railing, I became acutely aware this was not a loading zone. We were on a pedestrian walkway surrounded by a four-foot-high safety railing, and the deck of the boat was about seven feet below the top of the seawall. In other words, there was a big gap between the top of the safety railing and the deck of the ferry. As a tour guide who routinely took groups of tourists to the Statue of Liberty, I knew there was a procedure to safely load boats, and I knew there was no way to safely board from this spot. I was shocked the captain would even try it here.
As the captain brought the ferry closer to the shoreline, I saw two large, muscular men tie up the boat and then turn their attention to the waiting crowd. Judging by their uniforms, these guys were dockhands who ran the ferries to the Statue of Liberty.
With no ladder or ramp to span the gap between the walkway and the deck, the dockhands began helping people over the rail and lowering them into the boat. It was awkward and slow — and definitely did not meet New York City’s stringent safety rules — but it was working.
Brian was in front of me carrying Gaby. When it came our turn to board, one of the big men asked, “Does that dog bite?” Brian shook his head, and a deckhand in the boat raised his arms. The dockhand took Gaby from Brian and tossed him gently to the man below.
Then it was my turn. I climbed up on the railing and sat with my legs dangling over the edge. The dockhands gave me a few seconds to balance before lowering me down toward the deck.
“Hey man, watch the lady’s skirt,” one said to the other.
I looked down and realized my pink nightgown barely covered my knees. But I was way beyond being caring about my clothes or my modesty.
The guys took my forearms and lowered me into the boat, keeping my nightgown clamped tight around my legs. Brian climbed over the railing and jumped down to join us. As Brian retrieved Gaby, he asked one of the guys, “Where is this boat going?”
Slipping into “tour guide” mode, I led Brian and Gaby through the interior passageways and up the short staircase to the open-air top deck, where I always took my groups so they could capture the best photos of the Statue of Liberty. As we made our way to our seats, I took stock of the other evacuees. There were about 200 on board — office employees, hotel staff, women in workout clothes, parents with kids, and mothers holding babies. All seemed bewildered to find themselves floating on a ferry in the Hudson on what had started out as a normal Tuesday morning.
Some appeared unscathed, as if they had been nowhere near the chaos. Others were yellow from dust, like Brian and me. A few were red from blood. Clothing ranged from pristine to shredded. I tried not to stare at a blood-soaked man whose clothes had more gaping holes than intact material. He sat alone, staring straight ahead in shock. Many people were crying, and several wore the wide-eyed panicked look I had seen much of the morning. A few managed to pull off the impassive expression of a normal New Yorker during a normal morning commute, like it was just an ordinary day.
One thing we all had in common — no one was talking. And no one had their cell phones out as cell service was down. Brian and I collapsed onto a bench, and Brian gathered Gaby onto his lap. It felt so good to sit down.
When the boat reached capacity, the dockhands pushed off from the wall, assuring the people waiting in line that more boats were coming. As the ferry started churning through the water, I gazed back at the city we were leaving behind. A large cloud of dust hung over the Twin Towers — or the spot where they had been — and stretched to the end of Battery Park and floated out into the harbor. From this angle, the dust took on a white hue instead of the yellow shade that had settled on our clothes. Thick black smoke rose from the gaping empty hole. I turned my head away.
According to the watch on Brian’s wrist, it was almost noon. After three hours of terror, we were off the island. We were alive.
As we set out across the river, I looked across the harbor. Boats of all shapes and sizes were racing toward Manhattan from every direction. I had never seen so many boats sailing through the waterways at once. As we stepped ashore in New Jersey, I looked back at my beloved city, shrouded by a massive yellow, white, and black cloud.
We unloaded quickly, and without a backward glance, our captain and his crew turned the boat around and headed back to Manhattan.
The Largest Modern Day Boat Evacuation
I later learned that Brian and I were just two of the approximately 500,000 people rescued from the island of Manhattan by boat that day. The September 11 boat lift would prove to be the largest sea evacuation in recorded history, surpassing even the “Miracle of Dunkirk,” the rescue of Allied soldiers from the coast of France during World War II.
The terrorist attacks had left up to a million people stranded in Manhattan. Immediately after the attacks, subway trains were shut down, and after the second plane hit, the city closed all bridges and tunnels to Manhattan to nonemergency traffic. MTA buses were suspended or rerouted. With tunnels closed and subways shut down, workers and residents south of Canal Street found themselves fleeing on foot, picking their way through streets littered with dust and debris from the collapsed buildings.
Like Brian and me, hundreds of thousands headed to the coastline as they fled the devastation. When the U.S. Coast Guard realized that large crowds were gathering there, they issued a radio call asking every available boat to head toward the tip of Manhattan to take people off the island. In a virtual panel discussion in 2020 hosted by the Transportation Institute, the New York Council Navy League, and Turnstile Tours entitled, “The 9/11 Boatlift: Panel Discussion with Maritime Heroes,” Dan Ronan, former Director of Vessel Trafficking Service of the U.S. Coast Guard Sector New York, said, “We made the conscious decision that we wanted the professional mariners of New York — of which there are many and who are very talented — to be that workforce to move people that day.”
The Coast Guard was not sure who would respond, but an estimated 150 boats soon headed toward Manhattan. New York Harbor quickly filled with sightseeing boats from Circle Line Tours, NY Waterway ferries, tugboats, water taxis, privately owned dining boats, personal watercraft, fishing boats, and party boats. Some of them went back and forth across the harbor all day, dropping off passengers in New Jersey, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and upper Manhattan.
In a report prepared for the U.S. Department of Transportation that details how the transportation system was affected on the day of the attacks, the NYPD stated, “While the evacuation of Lower Manhattan was chaotic, it was an ‘interesting phenomenon.’ It happened almost as if it were rehearsed, but no one had ever planned for it.”
A true cross-section of New York City demographics was evacuated by boat that day. Approximately 300,000 office workers, including commuters from New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania, along with 25,000 residents and 50,000 students, were downtown that Tuesday morning. Nobody knows how many tourists were in the Financial District that morning, but there certainly were many, as it’s known 35 million visited the city that year. Peter Johansen, former Director of Operations, New York Waterways, commended the evacuees for their behavior in the panel discussion. “People were great. They were very cooperative. They were being polite to each other. There was no pushing, no shoving, anything like that.”
The spontaneous boat evacuation of 9/11 helped rescue 500,000 people in less than nine hours. “Every mariner is taught that you never, ever leave someone out there. If someone calls for help, you go. It’s ingrained in every mariner. It’s the real basis of why everything happened,” said panelist Andrew McGovern, Sandy Hook Pilots Association.
Vice Admiral Michael McAllister, Deputy Commandant for Mission Support, United States Coast Guard, and also part of the panel, stated, “When I think about the role of the maritime industry . . . they saved a lot of lives by conducting a safe and rapid evacuation of the island of Manhattan.”
On September 11, my focus was on escaping the island, and I never thought to get names of the men who took such care loading me onto the ferry that day. And it would be years before I understood the scale of the boat evacuation and realized there were at least 800 maritime heroes that day. Unfortunately, many involved in that boat evacuation have since died, as the toxic dust they inhaled during the rescue mission eventually led to cancer or other illnesses.
We Will Never Forget
If it weren’t for the maritime heroes, that day would have played out much worse for hundreds of thousands of us. We were the lucky ones. Over the past 20 years, we have had opportunities to continue life and to pursue our dreams, unlike almost 3,000 others whose lives were cut short on 9/11. On a day that saw the worst of humanity, we also saw some of the best. And we will never forget them.
Featured image: Boats coming to the rescue of hundreds of thousands of people who were stranded on Manhattan on September 11, 2001 (Courtesy New York City Police Department)
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