Issue Date: Dec/Jan 2002, Professional Mariner, A shining light in our darkest hour, by Richard O. Aichele
As fire and heavy, black smoke were seen spewing from the 110-floor North Tower skyscraper at the World Trade Center (WTC), without instruction or guidance from authorities, vessels from tugboats to ferries in the harbor area that witnessed the incident changed their courses and headed directly for the closest docking areas to the WTC: the Battery, Pier 11 at the foot of Wall Street, and North Cove.
Some people had seen a jet passenger aircraft crash into one of the two WTC towers at 0843 on Sept. 11, 2001. "In the harbor, every single boat dropped what they were doing and headed to the Battery," said Glen Miller, president of Miller's Launch Service, Staten Island, N.Y. "Everybody seemed to understand this was going to be a very big disaster."
Some in the maritime community were immediately aware of the catastrophe. In Jersey City, N. J., across the Hudson River from the WTC, Fox Navigation's catamaran Sassacus had just tied up at the Liberty Landing Marina after dropping off passengers at Pier 11 from Glen Cove, N.Y. Capt. Robert Theofield, scheduled to attend a morning commercial ferry operators' meeting in lower Manhattan, changed into his business suit, went on deck and saw the explosion in One World Trade Center. Miller was on Staten Island driving to his office at 0843 when, at a turn in the road, he saw the first aircraft crash into the North Tower, and within minutes he was aboard one of the company's launches, headed across New York Bay toward Manhattan. En route to the city for a meeting of the Port of New York and New Jersey Harbor Safety Committee, Sandy Hook pilot, Capt. Andy McGovern, saw the WTC flames from his car while traveling to Manhattan on the Belt Parkway. McGovern immediately changed his destination and headed to the special traffic center at the Staten Island U.S. Coast Guard station to help coordinate the maritime community's response. A few miles north, Arthur E. Imperatore Jr., president of NY Waterway, based in Weehawken, N.J., said he had dropped his kids off at school and was driving to his office when he saw the second aircraft hit the other WTC tower. "From my car I could see both towers burning. The first thing I did was hop on a [NY Waterways] ferry to head downtown, and as I was doing that, the South Tower collapsed," he said.
When the South Tower collapsed at 0950, almost the entire high command of New York City's fire and emergency services were killed while in their command center, along with the firemen, policemen and other emergency personnel working to get people out of the building. Forty minutes later, at 1030, similarly weakened by the raging jet-fuel-fed fires, the WTC's 110-floor North Tower suddenly collapsed, killing those WTC workers and emergency personnel still in the building. When the North Tower collapsed, only 107 minutes had elapsed since the first plane crashed into it, but almost 6,000 people were missing and most presumed dead in the burning rubble of the WTC's twin towers.
Survivors of the WTC complex struggled through the thick clouds of smoke, ash and concrete dust to escape the burning sites of the two buildings. As the choking clouds of dust settled, they walked through ash and dust, up to 6 inches deep on some streets, for blocks around the WTC site. Some started to walk north uptown. Others that escaped on the south side of the WTC complex began heading for the nearby waterfront, looking for a way to escape Manhattan."
It was like Dunkirk"
Responding almost immediately after the first tower was hit at 0843, ferries already in the lower Manhattan area shifted from bringing in commuters to evacuating commuters and residents.
According to Imperatore, "We were there and on the scene. There was no one in charge yet, no central authority coordinating efforts at that time, so we just went ahead and did it." NY Waterway, the largest private ferry operator in the port, with 24 vessels, was making the regular morning commuter runs on the river at the time of the attack. Some boats were at the Hudson River ferry landing close to the Financial Center with others minutes away on the river or at New Jersey terminals. NY Waterway crews just started moving people out of Manhattan. Initially, the ferry captains, "picked up people at our terminals and also nosed their boats into the seawalls letting people jump over the railings onto the boats," Imperatore said, noting his time that morning was spent in lower Manhattan helping to evacuate the people. Recalling the many boats from various maritime companies that converged on the lower Manhattan waterfront and picked up everyone, Imperatore said, "It was extraordinary. It was like Dunkirk."
Navigating at the waterfront was risky for the first of the vessels moving to lower Manhattan's shoreline because of the fires raging in the WTC towers and resultant smoke. Said Capt. Russell J. Bostock, of NY Fast Ferry's high-speed catamaran Finest and the company's general manager: "When we docked at Pier 11, it was completely black from the smoke. There was no visibility. We came in by radar, and the radio communications with other vessels obviously was critical."
SeaStreak, another high-speed ferry operator between the Atlantic Highlands and Manhattan, also found its vessels located close by to provide almost immediate evacuation assistance. By 0840, the catamaran ferry SeaStreak New York had almost completed its run to New York and was heading up the East River. As it passed Pier 16 on the East River, the captain radioed the home office, "that he saw a plane hit the WTC. He continued up to East 34th Street, did the drop off and pick up, and while on the way back, again near Pier 16, he saw the second plane hit the other tower," said Joanne Conroy, marketing director of SeaStreak. A second SeaStreak ferry was ready to dock at Pier 11 with a load of New York-bound passengers. Instead, its crew found "people running to the pier. When the boat docked they came on, filling the boat, so it headed back to New Jersey," she said.
At about the time the second plane hit the South Tower, the New York Fire Department called Circle Line Statue of Liberty Inc., at the Battery, with instructions to hold their two sightseeing boats, with a capacity of 1,834 passengers, at the dock for possible evacuation of injured people. One boat, Miss Circle Line, had already boarded passengers for the first trip to the Statue of Liberty. "It did not sail, and we refunded the passengers' money. The two boats remained moored until early evening at the Battery, waiting for the injured," said Hal Clancy, the company's general manager.
On the two Fox Navigation ferries across the river at Liberty Landing Marina, Theofield and Capt. John Tragert were concerned that the wind might shift the heavy smoke in their direction, possibly trapping the ferries Tatoban and Sassacus there. "Captain Tragert and I conferred. At that point you couldn't even see the tip of the Battery. We decided to head out in the river and move as close as possible to the Battery until we could see the docks and help evacuate," Theofield said. Within a short time the smoke impediment was compounded with the huge cloud of cement dust when the buildings collapsed. "It was pretty horrible," he said. "People were just running."
Calls for assistance answered
The Coast Guard's New York Command Center and the Vessel Traffic Center are located on Staten Island. By the time the second aircraft hit the WTC, the Coast Guard was in a crisis mode, knowing people had to get off of Manhattan Island, and that would require a massive evacuation. McGovern met with Lt. Mike Day, the Coast Guard's chief of the waterways oversight branch in New York, upon his arrival. Both agreed that the Staten Island vessel traffic center was good, but with all the small craft expected, they knew they had to actually be at the Manhattan waterfront to establish control. "We put together a quick plan but anticipated we would be shooting from the hip once we got there, so I placed a call to the Sandy Hook Pilot station asking for the pilot boat New York, designated as Pilot No.1, and anything else we had floating, McGovern said.
The pilot boat New York was chosen as the floating command center because of its high maneuverability, its ability to stay on station a long time and its large wheelhouse with the necessary communications equipment. The immediate quick plan was for McGovern and another Sandy Hook pilot to direct most of the traffic by radio from the pilot boat New York. Also onboard, and in overall command, was Day. He also directed the Coast Guard contingent. This included a communications team that was in direct contact with the Staten Island Center, Coast Guard vessels and personnel on other launches to maintain security in the upper harbor. McGovern estimated the pilot boat Maritime Command Center (MCC) was in place and fully operational off Manhattan by about 1045.
When the Coast Guard called for all assistance, some tugboats were already at the scene with others making ready to assist. The tugboat Franklin Reinauer, under Capt. Ken Peterson and followed by three other Reinauer tugboats, arrived at the Battery seawall around 1130. Peterson said he radioed the MCC aboard the pilot boat New York for permission to go to the Battery seawall to take on passengers. Seeing 10 other tugboats standing off the Battery, he radioed them to come to the seawall. "People started running for the boats and I got off and started directing traffic," Peterson said. "The first day, we had 27 tugboats on the Battery wall and five at Pier 11." Tugboats from Moran, McAllister, Turracamo, Reinauer, Penn Maritime, Skaugen PetroTrans, Weeks Marine and other companies responded and continued to arrive during the afternoon. "It quickly became a collaborative effort with Andy McGovern, Ken Peterson and me determining how to best employ all the resources," Day said.
Fire-fighting efforts at Ground Zero relied heavily on water supplied by two city fireboats and a welcome addition, the ex-New York City fireboat John J. Harvey. Privately purchased by outbidding the scrap dealers in 1999, the boat had been repaired since then and docked at Hudson River Pier 63. On the morning of Sept. 11, the owners and two volunteer crewmembers got John J. Harvey underway and began assisting in the evacuation. "We took probably 200 people up to Pier 40 past the WTC, so they could walk home," said Chase B. Wells, the fireboat's principal owner. The crew then responded to a call to assist the other fireboats pumping water from the river to Ground Zero. Many of the fire command had been killed, and "there was a real vacuum of power," Wells said. But other fire officers stepped in to direct operations. "It was unbelievable," he said.
Keeping the vessels and survivors moving
Among the maritime community's members, no potential problem seems to have been overlooked as individuals came forward to use their skills and company assets. Kurt Erlandson, owner of Randive Inc., Perth Amboy, N.J., anticipated the possibility of lines fouling propellers with so many boats operating in close quarters. One Randive dive crew had been working in the anchorage south of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge when the first plane hit the WTC. "I pulled them out of there and dispatched them to assist the evacuation. Then the rest of the crew and I arrived in New York on Randive's boat with a complete diving spread about 1130, after we got clearance to go to the Battery," said Erlandson. Working off of Randive's boat and one of the Miller's Launch boats, the divers averaged six jobs a day clearing cables and hawsers from the response boats and tugboats. In their free time, they assisted coordinating the supply operations. "It was just another layer of a safety net that just happened," Miller said. "But for the vessel operators, it was so valuable knowing a commercial diver was there."
People helping people
The survivors of the WTC attack boarding the boats were mostly the walking wounded. Some people had cuts, torn clothing and were covered with dust. "There was no chaotic panic. It was somber. They were kind of dumbfounded about the whole situation," said one maritime rescuer. Vessel crews provided coffee, water, soft drinks and helped their passengers clean up.
"It was horrible. We saw people jumping out of the windows," Imperatore said. "Then you just got busy helping people, evacuating people off the seawall, from the piers, wherever we could get a boat in and there were people waiting."
The evacuation operation soon became more focused. "Quick-thinking people like Kenny Peterson starting to slap signs on the tugboats indicating where they were headed Ã‘ Brooklyn, Queens, Weehawken, Jersey City and Staten Island," Miller said. Jim Sweeney, vice president of operations for Penn Maritime, aboard the tug Penn II, noted, "It was amazing how they directed people to the escape routes from Manhattan."
Many of the WTC survivors, unable to reach the Battery area, walked uptown. All ground transportation, including New York City subways and the trains and buses to suburbs in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, had been shut down for security reasons. On the midtown area's West Side, two marine avenues quickly opened. NY Waterway evacuated many people from their midtown locations at the foot of West 38th Street to their Hoboken, N.J., terminal, adjacent to a major commuter New Jersey Transit rail station. "They were able to catch a train home. They were very grateful," Imperatore said.
Staten Island Ferries brought in emergency workers from Staten Island and evacuated civilians. From the Battery to West 42nd Street people lined up along the river wherever a boat could reach them and take them to New Jersey. Spirit Cruises' three dinner boats picked up people at the Chelsea Piers and carried them across the river to Weehawken. NY Waterway's midtown waterfront terminal had long lines. Throughout the long day, everyone was orderly and restrained.
At the docks of New York Circle Line Sightseeing Yachts Inc. at West 42nd Street, management and crews had a clear view of the terrible events unfolding downriver at the WTC and cancelled the regular sightseeing cruises. "By 1015 people started coming to the pier," said Peter Cavrell, vice president of sales and marketing at New York Circle Line Sightseeing Yachts. On its own initiative, the company began a shuttle service using the three largest Circle Line Sightseeing Yachts tour boats with 600-passenger capacities, making continuous trips across the Hudson River to Weehawken. As the day turned warmer, and because there was not much shade, some employees ran hoses along the long lines of people waiting to board boats and supplied them with wetted paper towels. "We also sent a few staffers into midtown to tell any people walking north that we were offering free service to New Jersey," Cavrell said. By mid-afternoon of Day One, the lines translated to a three-hour wait to board the boats. That day, few people among the maritime community's rescue workers kept track of time, and Cavrell's reply to a question about when they ceased evacuation operations was typical: "We kept going into the night and I don't really know when we stopped."
There were some small incidents that lifted rescuers' spirits, such as the man jumping on the tugboat Nancy Moran at the seawall to escape Manhattan with his six-year-old son. Gregory J. McGinty, senior vice president at Moran Towing, said the story that reached him was that one of the tug's crew "took this kid through the tugboat to see the engine room and everything. The kid drew a picture for the captain to thank him. In what was probably the most horrific experience for a young child, all he could talk about was the tugboat ride."
Many survivors of the WTC and the immediate area considered themselves lucky to get out of Manhattan and reach their homes over the next 18 hours. It was due to the professionalism of the captains, crews and owners of the vessels that immediately put themselves on the line and at risk to help.
Doing whatever had to be done
In the chaos of Day One, the goal for many injured was reaching medical help. Saint Vincent's Hospital, just to the north of the WTC, received many injured and dying emergency and WTC workers. Triage centers were set up at the Battery, across the Hudson River at Liberty State Park in Jersey City, and Staten Island. With up to 50,000 people working in and visiting the WTC complex on an average working day and recalling the large numbers of people evacuated from the city after the 1993 bombing of the WTC, many expected large numbers of injured people with burns, broken bones, heart attacks and other injuries. NY Waterways had several boats dedicated to carrying injured survivors to the triage center at Liberty State Park during Day One and may have assisted up to 2,000 injured people requiring medical aid. Other boats also evacuated injured victims across the Hudson River to Jersey City. With Manhattan streets closed and numerous ambulances destroyed in the falling rubble of the WTC buildings, the cross-Hudson water evacuation route was undoubtedly the quickest route from south of the WTC to medical services, and it saved many lives. At the Battery seawall, some of the larger tugboats were kept there because their large open-back decks could provide space for injured people on gurneys.
McGovern said at one point, the MCC heard rumors that "a couple of hundred wounded were expected at 34th Street. We ran some boats up there and stood by, but nobody ever showed up."
Unfortunately, it soon became apparent to the maritime rescue boats' crews that the evacuation would not involve the large number of people, both walking and injured, first envisioned. Bostock had been on the maritime scene after the 1993 WTC bombing. "We moved out a lot of people," he said. "Far fewer people came off Pier 11 than in the previous incident. Obviously a lot just didn't make it out." Miller, who was on the waterfront rescue scene from the beginning, also saw the inevitable and commented quietly: "Everybody was ramped up for the wounded, the seriously injured, but that never really materialized. For the most part, if they didn't walk out before the collapses, they didn't get out, and they are in that pile."
For the next few days, there was still the hope of recovering survivors buried in the ruins and rubble and for recovering bodies. The survival of the New York City Fire Department's Ladder Company 8 and one civilian on a fourth-floor stairway of the collapsed North Tower provided some encouragement. But the reality was that there would be very few buried survivors found, so when the need for more evacuations was over by Day Two, McGinty said the Coast Guard asked Moran Towing to hold three tugs to transport bodies the next day to a temporary morgue on Staten Island. "We were sensitive to the guys on our boats who had experienced their own levels of stress," McGinty said. "We talked to them, laid out a plan and told them they didn't have to do it if they didn't want to. They all said they would do whatever had to be done."
Supplying the rescuers
As a result of the loss of the high command of the city's fire and emergency personnel, there was not much initial direction from city officials, and at an early meeting on Day One with the MCC, city officials basically told the Coast Guard to do whatever they thought was right. "We took that as an empowerment to start bringing supplies over," Day said.
People at Ground Zero, the Manhattan waterfront, nearby New Jersey, Staten Island and Brooklyn waterfronts, and crews on the numerous vessels repeatedly used the phrases "just amazing," "everyone cooperated" and "just doing what it took" to describe maritime community responses. Individuals stepped up and took charge of specific functions, and captains and crews from other companies took their direction. Miller and his launches were a key element in establishing supply lifelines from New Jersey to North Cove that kept the rescue efforts going at Ground Zero. Private maritime operators kept their vessels onsite and available until Friday, Day Four, when federal authorities took over.
The need for drinking water was an early one for the rescuers at Ground Zero. "During Day One, the Transit Police at the Battery needed drinking water and other supplies they could not get," Peterson said. "Glen Miller and I got on the radio and Andy McGovern came back telling us we would get water. All of a sudden, a Poland Springs tractor-trailer showed up and unloaded the whole truckload of bottled water. Later that night, we ran out of ice at the Battery and a couple of boat loads showed up from Jersey City."
With the intense fire-fighting efforts, fuel also quickly became a problem. "When we arrived [at North Cove], there were several fire department fuel brigades with five-gallon water cooler jugs carrying diesel fuel to keep the pumpers running. The fire trucks were all hooked up and couldn't be moved, so the tugs supplied fuel from their tanks," Day said. The fireboats running out of fuel were refueled at first from nearby tugboats. The maritime community logically thinks of moving goods by water. However, some New York City officials appeared to forget momentarily that Manhattan is an island. So when the suggestion was made to bring a fuel barge to the shoreline and run hoses to the equipment, such as fire engines, there was hesitancy plus a protest by a city agency that it could not be done before the proper permits were issued. Logic and reality finally persevered, since everything was running out of fuel.
Emergency workers at the site were engaged in any possible rescue efforts plus fire fighting for the first two days. "Then they realized they needed greater expertise on moving the giant steel pieces at the site," Miller said. On the day of the attack, structural steel ironworkers had been at work across the Hudson River in New Jersey. Many were later transported to work at the WTC site along with steelworkers from other parts of New York City.
Day and night, thousands of rescue workers worked at the WTC site supported by donated equipment, food and clothing brought to Manhattan by the maritime community's lifelines, originating on New Jersey's waterfront piers. Requests for supplies were quickly met. When word went out that drinking water was needed at Ground Zero, supermarkets on the New Jersey side of the river were emptied by individuals buying 10 or 20 bottles and bringing them to the pier staging areas. Similar stories were repeated for other supplies, such as work boots. "A lot of guys were doing burning of the steel, and because there were so many pieces of hot steel, their boots just melted," McGovern said. "We put a request out they needed boots. Next thing, not only were corporations donating truckloads of stuff to the docks, but ordinary people went to the store and bought a dozen pair of boots and got them to us. It was amazing. And the rescue workers would just grab a new pair when they could and kept on working."
By the end of Day Two, the Coast Guard had established a larger presence in the harbor and additional security in the outer and inner harbor areas with the arrival of 12 vessels, including the 270-foot cutters Campbell and Tahoma, buoy tenders Juniper and Katherine Walker, six patrol boats and three tugs repositioned from as far as New Bedford, Mass.
When rescue workers at Ground Zero began to run out of oxygen and acetylene gas, a call was put in to the people on the New Jersey side of the river. "God knows where the new cylinders came from and how they got there, but they showed up in Jersey City and we moved baskets and baskets of the full cylinders across the river. Once we landed them at North Cove, guys onshore literary dragged them the three blocks through the deep rubble," Miller said. That solved one problem but another surfaced. At Ground Zero they did not have the necessary wrenches. Said Miller, "I remember Kenny Peterson walking up and down the Battery taking up a collection of wrenches he knew were on the tugs. Every tugboat just passed over a wrench." Problem solved.
The demand for food, water, clothing, medical products and every possible item needed to supply the people at Ground Zero and on the vessels supporting them was constant. Miller's Launch Service's boats formed the core of the cross-harbor supply chain. Hundreds of volunteers just showed up at both sides of the Hudson River. "They would break down the pallet loads, form human conveyor belts of some 300 people, handing boxes from one person to the other to fill the boats. We would race across to North Cove and there were another couple hundred people to hand-conveyor the supplies off," Miller explained. After a few days, handling the supplies became more automated when, he said, McGovern mentioned the procedure to the Army Corps of Engineers, which then brought in forklifts to move complete pallets of supplies.
The rescue workers also needed clothing. Conroy, at SeaStreak, said an announcement they made over a New Jersey radio station to the local community in New Jersey resulted in "seven 40-foot trailers of supplies from local residents and merchants" that were moved to the city over several days along with relief emergency personnel.
By Day Three, vessel traffic carrying the supplies to North Cove had become so intense that the MCC set up a mini traffic control on the bow of the pilot boat according to Day. "Radio commands were coming too fast and were stepping on everyone too much. Standing on the bow, we started using hand signals and flags for stop and go. That worked great," he said.
The need for maneuverable equipment to transport loads at Ground Zero was passed on to the MCC about Day Three. McGovern said he made a phone call to a friend whose father knew someone at John Deere and that person sent back word: "No problem; you can have what you want." One more direct call between McGovern and John Deere set the needed specifications: special non-puncture tires so they could climb over almost anything at Ground Zero and diesel engines instead of the normal gasoline engines. At two John Deere factories, they moved quickly to fill the MCC's request. Ken Golden at John Deere in Moline, Ill., said the six-wheel Gator utility vehicles were shipped, with 19 sent to New York and 15 to Washington, D.C. A second shipment of 25 vehicles followed later. Some came from John Deere's Williamsburg, Va., factory with another truckload from its Canadian factory in Welland, Ontario. Traffic to New York was cut off, so the Jersey City police arranged a police escort from the bridge over the Delaware River up through New Jersey to the New York City line, where New York City police took over as escorts. The Canadian border had been closed, and when the truck with the John Deere Gators arrived there on Thursday, there was an 18-hour waiting line. McGovern, advised of that problem, said, "I talked to a Customs Officer and I was told to tell the driver to go to the front of the line and he would be taken care of first. That truck was here on Friday."
The Seamen's Church Institute of New York & New Jersey was one of the organizations that immediately set up to distribute relief supplies to rescue workers, including hot food. Its Water Street headquarters were turned into an emergency relief center working around the clock for the 12 days after the disaster. The rescue workers being able to sit down to a hot meal only a few blocks from the devastation was especially important during the intensity of those first four days, according to Debra Wagner, the Institute's director of communications.
By Friday, Day Four, USNS Comfort, a 1,000-bed hospital ship, arrived in New York and docked at Pier 88. The military generally took over that day and began to exercise control over supply operations, and the maritime community's crews and vessels began to return to their normal business. "We were there when needed, but it was time to leave and to leave it to the guys that do it for a living," Miller said.
"New York Harbor and the New York maritime community has kind of a reputation for being rough, tough around the edges and pushy," Theofield said. "That day it was amazing to see the entire maritime community just pull together and act like one big company. Everybody helped out, cooperated. Guys moved their boats aside to let you in."
During most of Day One, the maritime community's efforts were directed primarily at evacuating workers from Manhattan, especially the injured, plus moving residents of the impacted areas of lower Manhattan to safer areas. For the large numbers of commuters, the harbor craft of all types were their only available transportation to reach their homes across the Hudson River. The flood of vessels and crews touched Manhattan's seawalls and piers from midtown to the Battery, boarding the survivors and moving them across the Hudson River, the East River and New York Bay to safety. How many people were evacuated from Manhattan by the rescue vessels may never be known, but the Coast Guard estimated the number at approximately one million. For the following four days, the mission was to bring in medical personnel, relief workers and the tons of supplies needed in Manhattan at the site. Looking back, Imperatore said, "I shudder to think of what it would have been like without all these vessels and their crews."
For sailors, civilian and military, whose lives are spent on the inland waters and open ocean, unexpected perils are always possible, and their tradition is to help others in need. The immediate and unselfish response of the maritime community around New York Harbor on Sept. 11, and for several days after, stands as irrefutable testimony that the tradition and dedication to help others remains strong in the New York and New Jersey waterfront's maritime community.
Richard O. Aichele (email: firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance writer based in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.