American Dunkirk: The Waterborne Evacuation of Manhattan on 9/11


The horrific events of September 11, 2001 were, you must admit, a triumph of planning: time, resources, personnel, organization. And for the most part, the perpetrators achieved what they set out to do. On the other hand, the responses to those attacks were triumphs of spontaneity: civilians and professionals, trained and untrained, leaping into the breach cold and on a dime, demonstrating in a fascinating way how humans can cooperate and coordinate their behavior on the fly. And to a remarkable degree, they too were extraordinarily successful.

A huge and fascinating slice of the story in New York was the evacuation of up to an estimated 400,000 people from Lower Manhattan by an ad hoc flotilla of boats –up to 100 tug boats, pleasure craft, ferries, fishing boats, dinner cruise vessels, whatever and whomever happened to be nearby in the harbor that morning. Some have said this story is “unknown”, but that’s not quite true. I’ve certainly read about the story in newspaper accounts, books, and the like many times — but then, I was focused like a laser beam on the story during my New-York Historical Society years, when we put on a series of exhibitions about the events (and I still am, as I’ve been working on a long term writing project about that day). But, it’s possible that most ordinary people haven’t heard the tale. If that’s so, I imagine it might be because it’s a quieter story, one that happened in the midst of high drama, tragedy, villainy, murder, death and spectacles of violence. But if you can just shift your focus, and direct your gaze towards the waterfront — consider what I just said once more: 400,000 people (roughly the population of Minneapolis) evacuated from New York in a few hours by boat. By strangers. On random craft, not even passenger craft necessarily. With no advance planning.


Participants on the deck of the Lilac — a perfect setting for this panel, as the events pretty much went down RIGHT HERE

 A number of participants in that heartening story (boat captains and crew members, rescuers, coordinators, evacuees) as well as researchers and scholars were aboard the Lightship Lilac last night for a different sort of launch, for the new book American Dunkirk: The Waterborne Evacuation of Manhattan on 9/11. The fascinating panel included the book’s authors Tricia Wachtendorf and James Kendra, both of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware; Eddie Rosenstein, producer of Boatlift, a film about the event; Captain Patrick Harris of the yacht Ventura, who was one of the rescuers; and Jessica Dulong, chief engineer of the fireboat John J. Harvey, which also played a crucial role in saving lives that day (she is also a distinguished writer and the author of the upcoming book Calling All Boats: Untold Stories of the Maritime Evacuation of September 11th.  )

L-R, Harris, Wachtendorf, Kenda, Rosenstein, Dulong

L-R, Harris, Wachtendorf, Kendra, Rosenstein, Dulong

Kendra and Wachtendorf’s research drew largely from analysis of first person accounts, both their own interviews and those they found in archives, such as the one at South Street Seaport Museum. They seem focused on how people self-organize to respond effectively in sudden crises like this. And there were fascinating contributions to the discussion by people in the audience who were there that day. Again and again and again, the main theme of the conversation seemed to be that humans require freedom to make their own decisions in such situations. Bureaucracy and rules and dogmas and “permission” don’t serve you well where speed is required. The evergreen example of how bureaucracies can tragically fail in such situations is Hurricane Katrina, where each decision-maker seemed paralyzed by procedures, causing delays that cost lives. The one exception of course being the U.S. Coast Guard — which also performed admirably on 9-11. Accustomed to the exingencies of rescue as part of its core mission, the Coast Guard apparently has a pragmatic ethic of relaxing formalities as the need requires. Or, as Wachtendorf finessed the day’s lesson, remaining mindful of the aims and spirit of the rules, even as you need to bend them to get the job done. (Absolute chaos, after all, would be its own form of disaster). Other points stressed by participants included the intense training and inborn caution of all maritime personnel. In some ways, sailors are hard wired for sensible decisions and practices in such situations, and most are trained in the same way, so that even when they kick into gear in a spontaneous situation they have pre-set ways of interacting and interlocking that serve them well. And, as one of the rescuers chimed in from the audience, New York’s maritime community is small. Many of the players already knew each other and had interacted in some capacity — again, making the process flow more easily.

Anyway, I felt a real bond with everyone at this event. I sort of didn’t want to let them go. To get your copy of American Dunkirk go here. And to learn more about this incredible collective act of heroism, watch Rosenstein’s Boatlift right now:

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