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Coast Guard Led 9-11 Water Evacuation Was ‘Bigger Than Dunkirk’

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A Coast Guard RHIB off Manhattan on the morning of 11 September 2001.

A Coast Guard RHIB off Manhattan on the morning of 11 September 2001.

The U.S. Coast Guard led a water evacuation of more than 500,000 people from Manhattan following the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks on the World Trade Center towers in an action that moved more people from the island than the 1940 evacuation of Allied troops from France, according to a new oral history of former USCG commandant, Adm. James Loy.

Following the collision of the two planes into the towers, hundreds of thousands were trapped on the southern tip of the island unable to escape by bridge, Loy said in his recently published oral history with the U.S. Naval Institute.

ADMIRAL JAMES M. LOY (FOR RELEASE)

Adm. James Loy as the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard.

“As you remember, the footage of the day had this constant stream of people walking north and across the Brooklyn Bridge,” Loy said.
“And not so much understood were the people south of the towers who couldn’t go north and east to the Brooklyn Bridge. They went south and into the water, into the water frankly often literally so but more often in this unending stream of commandeered vessels that the Coast Guard directed to be taking people off Manhattan and taking them over either to New Jersey or Staten Island.”

A hodge-podge of area vessels were put into service — tugs, ferries, New York police and fire boats and private vessels — to evacate the southern tip of Manhtann, Loy said.

“The Staten Island Ferry, the Governors Island Ferry, the tour boat that runs around Manhattan became an ad hoc armada that off-loaded almost a half a million people to the water from South Manhattan,” Loy said.

The evacuation — in numbers — was, “bigger than Dunkirk,” referring to the 1940 World War II evacuation of 338,226 British, French and Belgian soldiers by mostly private vessels from France to the U.K.

A Coast Guard boarding team aboard a 41-footer looks over a privately owned vessel in New York Harbor as the World Trade Center site burns in the background. US Coast Guard Photo

A Coast Guard boarding team aboard a 41-footer looks over a privately owned vessel in New York Harbor as the World Trade Center site burns in the background. US Coast Guard Photo

“The direction was being provided by young Coast Guard officers from Staten Island that just happened to be on whatever platform they were standing on, kicking ass and taking names and directing traffic and pulling off this unbelievable debarkation from Manhattan,” Loy said.

Ferries evacuating lower Manhattan. Still from the documentary Boatlift.

Ferries evacuating lower Manhattan. Still from the documentary Boatlift.

In the days that followed the initial attack, Loy oversaw securing U.S. ports and restoring infrasturcture to allow commerce to come into the eastern part of the country.

“The real reality after I put out some direction was in the hands of commanders and captains who were the respective captains of the port and did what they needed to do, including all the stuff I told them to do and whatever else they felt was appropriate,” Loy said.
“If I am a Coast Guard commander locally, I don’t have to wait for my boss to tell me. I know what the hell I’m supposed to do in the middle of a nightmare that I’m capable of dealing with and I go do it.”

Trinity Church Yard shortly after the 9-11 attacks. US Coast Guard Photo

Trinity Church Yard shortly after the 9-11 attacks. US Coast Guard Photo

During the aftermath of the attack, Loy also directed then-Master Chief of the Coast Guard Vince Patton to assign a detail to remove debris from the Trinity Church in New York — final resting place of USCG founder Alexander Hamilton.

“I said, ‘Vince, I need you to get some senior enlisted folks from Captain of the Port of New York’s office. I know they’re up to their ass in alligators right now, but we’ve got to go fix that’,” Loy said.
“I was damned if I could go to sleep that night without doing something about it.”

 

  • bpuharic

    I was a Coast Guard Auxiliarist doing watch standing at station Sandy Hook after 9/11. What a terrible time for our county and what a remarkable response by the United States Coast Guard.

  • silencedogoodreturns

    what a crock. The Coast Guard moves 500k people, and no one, apparently not even the Coast Guard, knows about it until 13 years later?

  • coco november

    and I thank you, my brother in law was one of those evacuated. none of us could find him, he worked downtown on wall street and was taken to NJ safely.

  • silencedogoodreturns

    If the Coast Guard was involved in an operation bigger than Dunkirk, why are we just finding out about it now, 13 years later?

    • OLDNAVYVET

      Thankfully no “Stukas” were harassing them!

  • Allen Stubblefield

    I was the CO of the Naval ROTC program at SUNY Maritime in the Bronx that fateful day. I tried to convince the school’s commandant who owned our boats to send them to Manhattan. The school thought someone would “call” but I knew that would never happen. Frustrating to watch and not be able to do something.

    One of my midshipman was at the Coast Guard Battery that morning taking his merchant license exam. He was one of the 500,000 evacuated by the CG – he went to Staten Island, and then by bus to New Jersey. His wife was very worried in the Bronx until he was finally able to call at 3 pm. Semper Paratus!

    • bpuharic

      We still had 41′ MLBs then at Station Sandy Hook. There was so much debris in the water they had to change the props on the boats every time they made a run up the river to the Battery.

  • Rick Elkin

    I was the immediate Past President of the North Jersey Council, Navy League of the United States on that fateful day. The leadership at Coast Guard Activities New York was exceptional on a regular basis. On that day it was Super-Human!. The Coasties in New York, led by RADM Richard E. Bennis, the Captain of the Port of New York and his deputy, Captain Patrick Harris, did an amazing job under what were very difficult circumstances. Cancer took RADM Bennis from us way too early in life. But, I think he holds a very special place in the hearts and minds of all who lived through the insanity of that day. The courage of the Coasties who responded to the 9-11-2001 tragedy is a direct result of the leadership shown by the officers at Activities New York. God, Bless you, Dick…You will always remain in my heart and my thoughts