Eight years ago today,¬†on¬†a beautiful Tuesday morning in September,¬†¬†hundreds of¬†thousands of¬†commuters were trapped ¬†in lower Manhattan.¬† Manhattan is an island and all bridges, tunnels and subways had been shut down following the attacks on the World Trade Center.
Shortly after the second tower¬†was struck, well before either tower fell, ¬†something remarkable, almost miraculous,¬†happened.¬† A¬† fleet of boats began arriving in the waters around lower Manhattan.¬†¬† They were boats of all shapes and sizes – ferries, tugs, excursion boats, fireboats, buoy tenders, patrol boats¬†and yachts.¬†¬† Large and small, public and private, they began¬†an¬†¬†entirely spontaneous, unplanned, unsupervised¬†and uncontrolled evacuation of Lower Manhattan.¬†¬† By the end of the day between 300,000 and one million people, depending on which estimate you use, ¬†were carried to safety.¬† Over 2,000 of those¬†rescued were injured. ¬† When there were no more people to transport, many of these boats¬†began shuttling supplies to the rescue effort at Ground Zero.¬† ¬†It was the largest maritime evacuation since Dunkirk and¬†has gone largely unreported in the media. ¬†
My view of the evacuation is personal, if second-hand.¬†¬†I spent that September morning on the west side of the Hudson but my wife happened to be on the mezzanine of One World Trade when the first plane hit. Being an uncommonly sensible woman, she ran for her life and called me from her cell phone once she was well clear of the building.¬† She went to her office in the financial district.¬† When the¬†twin towers¬†fell, she and her colleagues were trapped in their building by the smoke, dust and debris.
When the air finally¬†began to clear after an hour or two, they heard that ferry boats were running from Wall Street on the East River.¬†¬† Wrapping wet towels around their faces to block the still heavy cloud of dust, they walked down to the river¬†to find that a makeshift ferry terminal had sprung up where there had been none that morning.¬†¬† Deck barges had been¬†¬†lashed to pilings and ferries that had run from the Hudson next to¬†what was now Ground Zero were coming alongside to take people home.¬†¬† No one was collecting fairs and everyone was helping each other.¬†¬†Everyone was angered, saddened, and/or simply stunned. There were tears but no panic. ¬†¬†My wife was home by two that afternoon.
One of the lessons of 9/11 that seems to have been lost was that there was relatively¬†little chaos¬†or panic, on the water or ashore.¬†¬† Those operating the makeshift rescue fleet worked together¬†- improvising, adapting and doing what was necessary to get the job done.¬† Likewise, their passengers were overwhelmingly cooperative and calm.¬†¬† No one was “in control” and there was no single plan, just hundreds of captains, deck hands and engineers who did what they thought they needed to do, under horrible conditions.¬†¬†¬†If¬†the purpose of terrorism is to terrorize, the terrorists¬† failed in the waters around New York on 9/11.¬†¬†¬†¬†
Dr. Enrico Quarantelli and Kendra T. Wachtendorf at the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware¬† studied the “spontaneous organization” of the evacuation fleet on 9/11.
In 2001, it was estimated that 2.2 million commuters were in New York City on a normal working day. With the collapse of the second World Trade Center tower on 9/11, hundreds of thousands of such commuters, as well as other workers, residents and transients in the area, were mostly blocked off from leaving by the usual land routes. Streets around the impacted zone were debris-clogged and public transportation had ceased operations. Given the polluted and suffocating air, these people retreated south, many as far as the sea walls at the tip of Manhattan. At around 11 a.m. there began a massive evacuation by a large number of boats and vessels that had converged on the sea walls and a few docks in the area. The everyday ferries, tour and dinner boats, and private pleasure craft that normally carry passengers, were joined by far more numerous vessels such as tugs, outboard runabouts, pilot boats, and oil spill response vessels, a Coast Guard cutter and even a retired fire boat, that were never intended to carry passengers.
Part of the massive convergence was triggered by a call issued by the local Coast Guard on VHF 13 and 16 after the collapse of the second tower. It requested anyone with a vessel in the area to go to the shoreline of lower Manhattan, but it appears much of the convergence resulted from personal observations or knowledge that an evacuation by water craft was possible or being attempted. The Coast Guard, which swiftly responded to the attack by establishing a security cordon around lower Manhattan, did notify entities such as ferries with which it had regular everyday contacts that safety and accident rules and regulations need not be strictly followed. But on the basis of what some operators reported about their involvement, it seems that many of the converging vessels had little direct interaction with the Coast Guard that day.
By any criteria, the evacuation, one of the largest ever in American history, was an extremely successful endeavor. There appears to have been no fatalities or casualties in the operation; no vessel was involved in any accident. In the course of about six-seven hours, according to the Coast Guard, perhaps up to 500,000 persons were moved. Later estimates have sometimes reduced the figure to around 300,000. Both seem reasonable given that one ferry company alone did count transporting 158,502 evacuees. Estimates that perhaps one million persons were evacuated, while still cited to this day, do not seem to be reasonable (but do indicate that no organization had much overall control of or knowledge about the operation as it proceeded). However, even the lowest overall estimate is an impressive figure.
The Coast Guard has far more legal authority over New York harbor than most organizations have over the territories in which they operate. But this organization, intelligently, made no effort to take over the evacuation which had primarily started on its own. Instead it provided as much relevant information as it could to facilitate as much as possible the new decentralized behavior marked by pluralistic decision making that emerged. The Coast Guard essentially played a supportive rather than a directive role. In this instance, the specific reasons as to why the Coast Guard demonstrated such appropriate and laudable behavior are being studied, but at the very least what happened shows that even organizations used to operating in a highly structured framework can change their operations to better adapt to a very new kind of major crisis.