The Lives They Saved: The Untold Story of Medics, Mariners and the Incredible Boatlift that Evacuated Nearly 300,000 People on 9/11

Reviewed by Master Chief David Mattingly, USN (Ret.)

One need only mention 9/11 and most people will recall the confusion that spilled from televisions and radios throughout the country. September 11, 2001 was a beautiful day with clear skies in New York when the world turned upside down as two planes careened into the World Trade Center towers. New York City streets were soon a melee of victims, survivors, and first responders who quickly clogged the streets around the World Trade Center. Authorities soon saw New York Harbor as a means to evacuate the injured and other survivors from Lower Manhattan.

Bestselling author and documentary producer L. Douglas Keeney has compiled the story of the evacuation of Lower Manhattan using New York Fire Department oral histories, the September 11 Digital Archives compiled by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University and the American Social History Project at the City University of New York, in addition to various news reports written about the waterfront. He has diligently compared stories to ascertain facts and deconflict reported locations and times. For example, in early reports it was estimated that between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people were evacuated, however, after closer examination the number was more realistically set at 270,000. Even so, “September 1, 2001, represents the largest single day boat lift in history and one of the greatest rescues in modern history.”

New York Harbor is one of the world’s largest ports with over 4,000 ship arrivals each year in addition to the local dinner cruise boats, ferries, tugs, personal craft, and government vessels. The World Trade Center is located at the southern tip of Manhattan. Keeney noted that, on average, 91,000 people use ferries to commute into this borough. After the planes crashed, major roads rapidly clogged with emergency vehicles and normal New York traffic. It was immediately apparent that to get away from the danger, a person needed to head towards the waterfront on the Hudson River. Without knowing what was happening, captains onboard the various boats transiting the Hudson or tied up nearby reacted to the smoke spewing from the World Trade Center by heading to the Manhattan Waterfront. 

The ferries did not return empty to Manhattan after the wounded and other survivors disembarked in New Jersey or other triage locations. Keeney writes in great detail of how the ferries carried fresh firefighters, medical personnel, food and supplies back to ground zero. Fire boats that were ineffective to pump water on to the fires became pumping stations sending water to ground zero through a hose system to replace the destroyed hydrants and water pipe system. Coast Guard boats provided security and monitored the harbor for debris and obstacles that would interfere with navigation.

The large ferries would rescue most of the people that day, while small craft contributed by picking up smaller groups in several small coves and marinas. In addition to assisting in the boatlift, law enforcement vessels took up security positions around the bridges and other sensitive sites including the Statue of Liberty.

To coordinate the effort, the U.S. Coast Guard enlisted the help of a New York harbor pilot with in-depth knowledge of the harbor to create a “traffic control” ship. The Sandy Hook Pilot Ship New York could provide a 360-degree view of the harbor from a height of 60 feet and came equipped with a full bank of radios to communicate with official and civilian domestic and international ships. Having been pressed into service, the Coast Guard flag was raised on the New York and Coast Guard caps were distributed. The following message was sent over the radio: “United States Coast Guard aboard the pilot boat New York all mariners we appreciate your assistance…Anyone wanting to help with the evacuation of Lower Manhattan report to Governors Island.”

Keeney goes into detail explaining the special security situation which law enforcement authorities and the U.S. Coast Guard faced after the realization that the nation was under attack.  More than 100 “vital assets” had to be protected in addition to approximately 100 freighters, tankers, and lighters carrying dangerous cargo in the harbor. Within 25 minutes, the Coast Guard ordered the “ultimate protection” by closing the harbor. Coast Guard Stations in the area positioned a picket barricade of patrol boats to block the harbor entrance, preventing any ships from entering. Units along the East Coast quickly got underway or, in the case of smaller craft, were loaded onto trailers to be transported to New York. Port Security Units traveled from Virginia and began patrolling in their camouflage boats as a show of force. Cutters were positioned to protect oil refineries. For the Coast Guard, it was an all-hands effort!

However, Keeney does not write about the U. S. Navy’s contribution to securing the port or recovery. According to a Naval Historical Foundation article published on the 10th anniversary of the attack, the New York Mayor’s Office requested that the Navy’s East Coast hospital ship USNS Comfort be sent to New York. It was noted in the article that this was the first time the Comfort was used in the Federal Emergency Response Plan. Keeney may have chosen not to include this information because the Comfort did not arrive on scene until two days after the attack. 

Keeney has created a compelling narrative of what happened on 9/11 both at ground zero and in New York harbor, of how mariners and rescue workers combined forces to evacuate survivors to safety as quickly as possible. The book provides unique insight into what was happening in New York and is highly recommended to both those with an interest in maritime security operations as well as readers interested in the history of 9/11.


David Mattingly retired from the Navy as Master Chief Petty Officer and as a civilian senior intelligence officer in the U. S. Intelligence Community. He is a contributor to several military journals and a member of the Military Writers Guild.

The Lives They Saved: The Untold Story of Medics, Mariners and the Incredible Boatlift that Evacuated Nearly 300,000 People on 9/11 (L. Douglas Keeney, Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, MD, 2021).

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