Delaware researchers pen book on historic 9/11 boat rescue

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A new book by a pair of University of Delaware professors explores the massive boat evacuation of hundreds of thousands from Manhattan on 9/11. 

Just two days after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Jim Kendra and Tricia Wachtendorf traveled to New York to document the response and recovery efforts. The University of Delaware professors lead the school’s Disaster Research Center. They’ve written about the boat evacuation in a new book published this summer called “American Dunkirk: The Waterborne Evacuation of Manhattan on 9/11.”

The stories they heard about the boat evacuation in those days after the attacks were tales of historic proportion. More than one hundred private and commercial boat operators stepped up to help evacuate as many as 500,000 people who were trapped on the south end of Manhattan. It was the biggest such effort in world history.

“Tugboats, dinner boats, sight-seeing boats, some private craft, and others, they worked over the course of about 10 hours, just making trip after trip after trip,” Kendra said. It started with boat operators who happened to be in New York Harbor when the attacks hit seeing people who needed to be evacuated. “Over time, the Coast Guard issued a call for all available boats to come to help out with the evacuation.” 

The quick action of those boat operators, even though they were not officially organized, should inspire others should they find themselves in a disaster situation. “People really have more capacity than they think,” Wachtendorf said. “These mariners really looked for the ordinary in that extraordinary…because of that, they were able to envision something. Take this big, huge complicated event, and break it down into bite sized trunks and begin working at it.”

The evacuation effort also has lessons for emergency planners preparing for future disaster situations. “It tells us that there is definitely a place for what we would call civil society, that is, regular non-official kinds of involvement in disasters,” Kendra said. “Organizations need to be open to those opportunities that they might not have anticipated before hand,” Wachtendorf said. “Take advantage of those relationships like we saw on 9/11 between the harbor pilots and the Coast Guard and these private vessels,” she said.

The boat rescue remains a lesser told part of the massive response effort that happened that day 15 years ago. Wachtendorf hopes this new book will help shine a light on the historic nature of the boat evacuation of Manhattan. “It’s not uncommon for people to be surprised and say, ‘I never knew about that,'” Wachtendorf said. “It’s an important part of history to make its way into that larger story.” 

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