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'All Available Boats': The Great American Boat Rescue Of 9/11 That Should Inspire Us All Today

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The Great American Boat Rescue Of 9/11 That Should Inspire Us All Today
People are evacuated by boat after the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Millrock Productions, Inc./Getty

While listening to Dax Shepard’s Armchair Expert podcast last week, I heard a story that broke my heart. Vivek Murthy was the guest, and he was telling Dax and Monica about the great boatlift of 9/11. I happen to be among the thousands, maybe millions, of Americans who somehow managed never to hear this story—Dax and Monica hadn’t heard it either.

The other tragic and heroic events of 9/11 loom so large in our memories that they appear to have overshadowed the incredible rescue that unfolded in the smoke-engulfed Hudson river at the lower tip of Manhattan. Murthy gave only a brief glimpse of the great boatlift, but the number he said—500,000—as in, 500,000 human beings—stuck in my head, and I needed to know more. I scoured what articles I could find and found and watched the 12-minute documentary, Boatlift, narrated by Tom Hanks.

We know that on the morning of 9/11, when the first tower fell, chaos ensued. We know people fled. We know that subways and tunnels and bridges were all shut down and that thousands of people north of the fallen towers had to escape on foot over the Brooklyn Bridge. We’ve all seen those videos.

But what many don’t know is that south of the towers, there was no way out, no bridge to cross. Thousands upon thousands of people could not flee north, and instead ran toward the lower tip of Manhattan, to the Hudson. As more and more people sought escape, they pressed those who had come before them up against the water’s edge. Some even jumped into the water.

Crews and passengers of boats on the Hudson looked on in horror. I can only imagine the fear they must have felt. Whatever had caused that massive rumbling, that mountain of black smoke—was it over? They must have had a sense that approaching the smoking island meant endangering their own lives. And yet they didn’t hesitate. Boats immediately began pulling up and loading as many people as they could and ferrying them across the river to safety.

View from a rescue boat after the World Trade Center Towers collapsed.

Loni Efron/Getty

There were so many people though, and the boats on hand weren’t nearly enough. One of the U.S. Coast Guard boats put out a radio call—“All available boats”—requesting the help of any and all boats, including civilian boats, to assist in the rescue effort.

The response was immediate. Hundreds of boats flooded the Hudson, cutting through the thick cloud of smoke to edge up to the panicked crowd, many of them covered in soot and debris. Boats loaded as many people that would fit before crossing back to the other side of the river, and then repeated the process again and again and again until every person who wanted to cross had crossed.

In under nine hours, more than 150 boats ferried 500,000 people across the Hudson. This is more people than were evacuated during the 1940 evacuation of Allied troops from Dunkirk, France, during WWII—the “Miracle of Dunkirk”—which evacuated 338,226 British, French, and Belgian troops, an effort that took days.

Civilians are evacuated by boat near the site of the collapse of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

Millrock Productions, Inc/Getty

The 9/11 boatlift remains the largest marine evacuation in history, but it represents so much more than that. It’s a story of regular Americans making themselves uncomfortable, even sacrificing themselves if necessary, to save the lives of others. It was a collective, empathetic response—an instantaneous coming together to do the necessary work for the greater good of the community. Nine hours, half a million people, under a cloud of thick smoke, without any promise of safety.

These rescuers were not emergency personnel. Some were, but many were just regular New Yorkers who saw a need and, disregarding their own personal well-being, leapt to fill it. No one ran home to their own worried families. They stayed and helped. They stayed and worked and shared resources, sometimes even siphoning gas from one boat to another, until all 500,000 people had been ferried to safety.

People are evacuated by boat after the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001

Millrock Productions, Inc/Getty

This is the part that broke my heart—the selflessness. The cooperation. The determination to do what was right.

America, what have we become? How is it that in just 19 short years, we have gone from the kind of country that can rescue 500,000 people in a matter of hours with zero preparation or planning to… this?

As we trudge through the COVID-19 pandemic, we have ample consensus among health experts advising us that a couple of simple acts are all that is needed to stem the tide of this infection. Stay in whenever possible. Wear a mask when it’s not.

Is it because we can’t feel the literal earth shaking beneath our feet? Is it because we aren’t confronted with a hundred-foot-high cloud of black smoke bearing down on actual human beings screaming for our help? Is it because we have an administration in power that insists we cannot, should not, believe what experts tell us? Is it because we’ve been told that “they” are only trying to control us?

People are evacuated by boat after the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

Millrock Productions, Inc./Getty

It’s true that private businesses and institutions have taken their own measures in an effort to help, but people have been horrible about it—people who call themselves patriots and claim to value freedom. They scream and throw tantrums in Costco and yell at teenagers working part-time jobs at an ice cream shop. Aid groups have popped up on Facebook, facilitating connections between those who need help and those who can offer it.

But it appears to me that far too many of us, if faced with a similar situation today, would pull up anchor and hightail it home. Far too many would hoard their gasoline, would worry they’d miss lunch or get a sunburn or inhale too much smoke if they were to stay and help. They’d hear the people screaming “Please don’t leave us” from the shore and inquire about their political affiliation.

9/11 was a horrific day, but along with the terror and tragedy came unparalleled heroism, cooperation, and generosity. We knew we were all in it together, and I grieve that it seems we as a country have veered so far away from that mentality.

America, we are in this together. There is not some big conspiracy that mask mandates are meant to be a gateway to government control. We are just trying to help ourselves. Those of you who doubt what health experts tell you, we’re trying to help you too. We’re trying to save you too.

We’re calling all available boats. And too many Americans are switching off their radios, turning their boats around, and sailing away.

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