On 9/11, a Flotilla of Ferries, Yachts and Tugboats Evacuated 500,000 People Away From Ground Zero

Amidst the terror and tragedy of the day came these everyday heroes who answered the call when the city needed them most

view of Manhattan with smoke cloud from the water
Boats arrive at Manhattan's Battery to rescue New Yorkers from the devastation wrought by the 9/11 attacks. © 2001. New York City Police Department. All rights reserved.

Greg Freitas slept through the sirens.

The previous day, Monday, September 10, 2001, had been a long night for the New York charter boat captain. Freitas had taken a group of clients for a spin on his 80-foot schooner, Adirondack. When the guests left and the ship was returned to its berth at Manhattan’s Chelsea Piers area, he had a drink with the crew, then went to bed in his quarters on the boat, falling asleep to the river’s gently rocking swells. “Normal night,” he recalls.

As was the blaring that he heard when he woke up. “We always heard sirens,” says Freitas, now 72. “Didn’t give it a second thought.”

He got out of bed, walked off the pier and over to his local coffee shop. The server looked wide-eyed with fear. “What’s the matter?” Freitas said. “Greg,” replied the man behind the counter, pointing to a television screen. “Look!”

Freitas turned and saw the image of smoke billowing from the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

He instinctively raced back to the pier, ready to start his boat up to help in any way he could. Like a lot of others at that point, he had no idea of the scope of the impending disaster. “I thought a small plane had hit the tower,” he remembers.

Freitas was about to take part in what has become known as the 9/11 boat lift—the largest water evacuation in history and one of the uplifiting, if lesser-known, episodes of that terrible day when terrorists flew two passenger jets into the iconic Twin Towers—part of a multipronged attack on America A makeshift armada of about 150 commercial vessels of various types—tugboats, ferries, charter boats—would transport an estimated 500,000 people out of the disaster zone of lower Manhattan to safety in New Jersey and Brooklyn.

image of NYC and river with a smoke cloud over Manhattan
Hundreds of thousands of people were stranded in Lower Manhattan after the attacks © 2001. New York City Police Department. All rights reserved.

“The rescuers displayed not only compassion, but also innovation, creative problem solving, improvisation, and really remarkable professionalism,” says Jessica DuLong, author of Saved at the Seawall: Stories from the September 11 Boat Lift, originally published in 2017 and reissued in paperback this year, for the 20th anniversary of the attacks. This, she says, is part of maritime culture. “Everything is calm, boring and routine and then all of sudden, there's something big and unexpected… a crisis that need management.”

This was certainly such a moment; the greatest crisis in the city's history.

For those working in or around the World Trade Center on that fateful day, the natural instinct was to flee the smoke, the flames, the falling debris, the clouds of ash. Students at Stuyvesant High School, the Borough of Manhattan Community College and others needed to evacuate, too, as did residents in the area. But where to go? Subways had screeched to a stop. The tunnels underneath the Hudson were closed. Outside of walking north—which many did—along streets and up the FDR Drive, or over the Brooklyn Bridge, which was open to pedestrians, only one obvious place remained: The water, towards the narrow strip of land snaking around the southern perimeter of Manhattan Island, generally known as the Battery.

Once there, the panicked and anxious could only hope that a steady hand would be extended to grasp; to pluck them off of the Dante’s Inferno that lower Manhattan had descended into—and on to the safety of a boat that could ferry them to safety on other, nearby shores.

Fortunately, for those who did make it out of the buildings and down to the Battery—those hands were there. In fact, all hands were indeed on deck that day.

people lining up for boats
Some evacuees waited more than three hours to board a boat. © 2001. New York City Police Department. All rights reserved.

That morning, Freitas quickly joined forces with his Pier 62 neighbor, Captain Sean Kennedy. A news media organization wanted to get a crew down to the World Trade Center, and had called to charter Kennedy’s boat, the Chelsea Screamer. Could Freitas accompany him and help out?

“Responding is who we are and what we do as captains,” he says. Having gotten his captain’s license in 1988, Freitas has been working on commercial passenger vessels since. As they brought the news crews down the river, they heard a radio call from Lt. Michael Day of the U.S. Coast Guard: “All available boats,” he intoned, in what would be the first of a number of similar transmissions. “This is the United States Coast Guard…. Anyone wanting to help with the evacuation of Lower Manhattan report to Governors Island.”

“He gave a call for all boats and the whole harbor dropped whatever they were doing to this,” says Eric Johansson, a professor at the State University of New York Maritime College, and a long-time tugboat captain himself. It was such a testament to the humanity of the mariners.”

Located in New York Harbor, 172-acre Governors Island is approximately 800 yards from the southern tip of Manhattan. It made a good rallying point for the boats that responded to the extemporized rescue effort. From about 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., the Screamer made three trips from various points on the southern tip of Manhattan, across the river to the Liberty Landing Marina in Jersey City, transporting a total of about 150 people. After that, they were called back to Chelsea Piers where they ended up helping distribute water to the thousands of people lined up there for evacuation.

boats including a fireboat evacuating people
Fireboat John J. Harvey can be seen loading passengers near the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Farther south, New York Waterway ferries and tugboats load passengers. © 2001. New York City Police Department. All rights reserved.

Larger boats took as many passengers as they could. The famed Staten Island Ferry made trip after trip, delivering to safety more than 50,000 people while returning from Staten Island with supplies and emergency workers.

In the annals of 9/11, the boat lift is one of many acts of valor that day—but it was something else: a marvel of improvisation and efficiency in the midst of chaos and horror.

“That's what is so remarkable,” says DuLong. “Nearly half a million people are vacated by boat, in a spontaneous, completely non-orchestrated effort. Individual mariners working together, individual boat crews doing what they can do. It was orderly, in most cases, but it was not organized.”

And the extraordinary nature of the response started even before that radio call. When the Coast Guard issued their call, she says, the boat operators were “helping facilitate evacuation operations that had already been going on. They did not come in and say ‘we got it’ or ‘we’re taking over.’ They said, ‘how can we be help?’”

By late morning, crowds of people had massed along the Manhattan shoreline, at ferry terminals, marinas and piers, waiting for the next available vessel. “People were shocked,” remembers Freitas. “You could just see it when we helped them on to the boat. They sat there staring. We were in shock, too.”

Most of the Screamer’s passengers that day worked in lower Manhattan. A few, mostly residents of the area fleeing their homes, brought pets or children. Some were covered in dust or reeked of smoke.

Manhattan with smoke, ships in the Bay
Vessels approach smoke-filled Lower Manhattan and the Battery. New Jersey is on the left. © 2001. New York City Police Department. All rights reserved.

Freitas recalls refusing an offer of $4,000 from one man to take him—alone—to New Jersey. But also remembers one passenger—Harold was his name, according to the recollections of the day he jotted down later. “He was very agitated when we picked him up,” Freitas says. When told he was safe and on his way to New Jersey, Harold got hold of himself. “He said he was coming back with us as a volunteer to help.”

The 9/11 boat lift begs comparison to Dunkirk, the great 1940 British sea rescue of 338,000 British and other Allied soldiers trapped by the Germans on the French coast. But while Dunkirk is well remembered, the boa tlift seems to have been somewhat overlooked amidst the many epic accounts of heroism on 9/11—although a short 2011 documentary, narrated by Tom Hanks, tells the story in brief, as does a segment in Spike Lee’s new 9/11 documentary series airing on HBO.

Historians recognize the boat lift’s significance. “It would be hard to overstate how important this was,” says Amy Weinstein, senior curator of oral history at the National 9/11 Museum and Memorial. “What they did was so critical. They were able to function as mass transportation that day. I mean, 500,000 people? That's a lot of people!”

The boat lift also served as a reminder that New York City was and remains a seaport. “The maritime industry has been a part of New York’s history since the beginning, and that industry ended up being absolutely essential on 9-11,” says Cortney Koenig Worrall, president and CEO of the Waterfront Alliance, a New York nonprofit organization. “The number of people moved by boat is part of the story that has to be told, but it's part of the longer and larger story of how we're connected to the water that surrounds New York.”

View of 9/11 from rescue boat
View from a rescue boat after the World Trade Center Towers collapsed because of a terrorist attack. Loni Efron/WireImage

Sitting today in the wood-paneled stateroom of his current day-trip charter boat, the Full Moon—docked at a marina a block away from the Freedom Tower and the 9/11 Memorial—a bewhiskered Freitas (wearing a baseball cap with the words “Old Salt” adorned on the front), thumbs through a scrapbook. Included in it are laminated copies of the various awards he has received including the 9-11 Medal from the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Coast Guard.

As was the case with many of his fellow mariners, Freitas’ involvement with the saga of that day continued after the attacks. Three days later, he transported a large tent from Chelsea Piers to help set up a canteen for workers near what was by then being called “The Pile”—the mass of smoking ruins where the towers had stood. Working with his crew and other volunteers, they set up the tent, and—thanks to donations of food that came pouring in— commenced an operation that soon spread beyond delivering meals, and would come to be known unofficially among the thousands of 9/11 responders, as “The General Store.”

Matt Bernstein, then a bay constable from Long Island, whose patrol boat had been pressed into service in the days after 9/11, rememberes the Store fondly. When temperatures dropped one night, he went in search of a sweatshirt to keep him warm. “Someone directed me to the Store,” he said. “He asked me if I wanted hooded or unhooded, what size I took and what color! That’s how big an operation it was.”

“We became quite large,” Freitas acknowledges. “Just about all the donated goods coming to the site came through me. We had socks, underwear, eye drops, wipes, blankets, we had pillows. It became a department store.”

As for his participation in the Boatlift, he is more circumspect. But Freitas’ modesty belies the achievements of he and the other skippers who rose to the occasion 20 years ago. “We have much to learn from the mariners and other who when the planes struck, stepped out of their workaday lives to become first responders,” DuLong writes in the preface to the paperback edition of her book. “Over and over again, they chose to help.”

And yet, two decades after the sirens and the smoke, Greg Freitas still has a hard time considering himself a hero. “What I did that day was what any captain would do.”

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