09/13/2011 02:51 pm ET | Updated Nov 13, 2011

The Untold Story of Ground Zero Evacuations by Boat

All at once the air turned "a very weird color, like a greenish grey," recalls Staten Island Ferry Captain James Parese.

At that moment he was sprinting across the upper deck of the Samuel I. Newhouse, preparing to pull the ferryboat away from the slip at the southern tip of Manhattan, when a blanket of gypsum dust, smoke, and ash blotted out the sun. The boat was filled with passengers desperate to evacuate the island -- some panicked and crying, some bleeding, some with no shoes -- and now they scrambled for life preservers, thinking the boat was on fire. It was one minute before 10am on September 11, 2001, and the World Trade Center's south tower had just collapsed.

Parese's eyes and throat started to burn, and for a moment he questioned his decision to leave the safety of Staten Island to set out on this rescue mission. "I remember looking out towards Jersey and I couldn't see anything." But when pieces of white plastic began drifting down from the sky, it reminded him of snow and he felt suddenly serene.

"You know when you're a kid and you're walking in that gentle snow and it's very quiet and peaceful? That's kind of what it brought me back to. ... I was completely calm at that point. ... All I could do was focus." As the captain steered the 300-foot, 3,335-ton ferry into a harbor crowded with other vessels, navigating by radar with zero visibility, the lives of thousands of distraught passengers depended on that focus. Parese drew upon decades of experience as a mariner, a profession where the notion that panic leads to peril is as deeply ingrained as the tradition of helping those need.

At that time, I was still learning the basics about boats and what it meant to be a mariner. At 28 years old, I had stumbled, by blissful accident, aboard a retired 1931 New York City fireboat, now operating as a living museum, and begun a hands-on, engine-room apprenticeship of the sort so few still exist in this country. I had been working as assistant engineer aboard fireboat John J. Harvey for only six months when the former FDNY vessel was called back into service to pump water alongside active-duty Marine Division boats. Together with the city boats we provided Hudson River water -- the only water available for several days following the towers' collapse -- to firefighters on land.

But that story -- the one about the antique, "little fireboat that could" that was saved from the scrapheap to once again serve her city in its hour of greatest need -- has been told -- on CBS Sunday Morning, in The New York Times, and The New Yorker, among other places.

What has gone largely unrecognized over the past decade, however, is the crucial contribution of ferryboat captains, tug crews, dinner-boat and sailing-yacht operators and other mariners who launched a massive, unplanned mission to deliver people off Manhattan Island, and later shuttle rescue workers and critical supplies. In the aftermath of an inconceivable assault, they stepped in, spontaneously, to provide invaluable, irreplaceable assistance.

The mobilization began within minutes after thick gray smoke started rolling through the airplane-shaped hole in the North Tower. Even before a message from the Coast Guard calling for "all available boats" crackled out over marine radios, white wakes from vessels racing toward Lower Manhattan zigzagged across the harbor.

Soot-covered refugees -- some injured and disoriented, some splattered with blood from people who had fallen or jumped from the burning tower -- fled to the water's edge. Soon after the second plane hit, authorities shut down the bridges and tunnels, trapping millions of people in the city. Never was it clearer that Manhattan is an island.

Within hours, vessels big and small -- municipal, commercial, and recreational -- evacuated between 300,000 and 500,000 people from Manhattan by water. The operators did this despite the countless obstacles along a shoreline designed for a passive view from the waterfront, with little infrastructure to accommodate large boats. New York harbor, once one of the world's major industrial ports, seemed to have forgotten its roots.

New York City fireboat John D. McKean was among the first to arrive at the seawall just south of North Cove where the World Financial Center meets the Hudson River. "People are coming out...burnt, cut up. People are helping each other, carrying other people. They're coming to us for help," recalled firefighter Tom Sullivan. While the McKean crew struggled to tie up the boat, stretching thick ropes across the walkway to loop them around trees, panicked people leapt off the wall onto the deck. "It was low tide, so they had to jump down about ten feet," Tom explained. "They're not waiting for assistance ... as they're jumping on, they're breaking their legs."

When Battery Park City was designed -- with gateless iron railings separating people from the water, no ladders along the sea wall, and without bollards for big boats to tie to -- no one had predicted that this stretch of waterfront would be the site of a massive evacuation. Other spots along the waterfront, like the Battery and Pier 11 at the foot of Wall Street, were somewhat better equipped to handle the streams of passengers that flooded the ferry piers.

Captains defied capacity regulations to load as many passengers as they could. Still, all along the waterfront from the Battery to Midtown, evacuees stood in lines that stretched for blocks, sometimes waiting for up to three hours to catch a boat.

Ferry and tour companies rallied enormous resources to the cause. That day, 22 NY Waterway ferries shuttled a total of nearly 160,000 people, first serving as water-borne ambulances transporting injured firefighters across the Hudson, then bringing evacuees to New Jersey, Brooklyn, and Queens. Circle Line tour boat operators moved an estimated 30,000 passengers on five vessels, while Spirit Cruise dinner boats carried some 8,000 people fleeing Manhattan. New York Fast Ferry and SeaStreak contributed as well.

Not all the boats were designed to carry passengers, however. Scores of commercial tugboats had converged on the island. Kenneth Peterson, then Reinauer Transportation port captain, counted at least 38 tugs working as taxis, some loading as many as 150 people aboard. The crews offered passengers water and towels to wash the ash from their faces, then asked where they wanted to go and delivered them.

Among the workboats shuttling passengers that morning (before pumping Hudson River water to firefighters on land) was fireboat John J. Harvey. Huntley Gill, who was at the helm that day, was struck by how voices on the marine radio reflected the mariners' steady determination. "I was incredibly impressed by the calm, efficient, and profoundly professional response of all the crews of boats at hand. There was never any sign of tension or stress."

So remarkable was this impromptu effort that disaster researchers have spent years studying the maritime convergence.

Based on their research, Tricia Wachtendorf and James Kendra, in a book to be published in spring 2012, make an argument that flies in the face of a core disaster management principle: planning. The maritime mobilization was successful, they hold, precisely because it was spontaneous, and largely undirected. "You plan in advance so you don't have to improvise, knowing that you'll have to improvise," explained Kendra. "In reality we need improvisation to fill the gaps between knowns and unknowns."

--Jessica DuLong, journalist; author, My River Chronicles: Rediscovering the Work that Built America; chief engineer, fireboat John J. Harvey