All Available Boats: The Story of the Greatest Waterborne Evacuation in American History

Oct. 25, 2023
The 9/11 Memorial & Museum presents the documentary Boatlift and a roundtable discussion with some of the heroes of the water rescues.

On Oct 23, 2023, the 9/11 Memorial & Museum hosted a special screening and a roundtable discussion called “All Available Boats.” The documentary, Boatlift, directed by Eddie Rosenstein and narrated by Tom Hanks, tells the story of the historic water rescues on Sept. 11, 2001.

When the World Trade Center buildings collapsed following the horrific terror attacks that morning, hundreds of thousands of people ran south to the water’s edge. Some began jumping into the water, others screamed for help. Seeing the chaos unfold, the U.S. Coast Guard issued a call for all available boats to help those who were trapped. The ensuing maritime responsefrom NYPD harbor units, fireboats and ferries to private and commercial boatsinitiated the largest waterborne evacuation in American history. An estimated 300,000 to 500,000 people were rescued in less than nine hours.

Boatlift includes interviews with some of the “ordinary people” who became heroes that day. The movie begins with Vincent Ardolino, captain of the Amberjack V, recalling how he saw the drama unfold and decided he had to do something. “I saw ferry boats rescuing people and thought I could do the same with my boat.” His wife was worried, but Ardolino said “I have to do what I have to do.”

It is that kind of spirit that is captured in this must-see documentary, which will now become part of the 9/11 Museum’s exhibitions in New York City.

Ordinary men, extraordinary stories

Following the screening of the movie, Noah Rauch, senior vice president of Education & Public Programs at the museum, moderated a panel discussion with Boatlift Director Rosenstein, U.S. Coast Guard Safety & Security Division Chief John Hillin, former FDNY Chief Marine Engineer Gulmar Parga, and NY Waterway Capt. Richard Thornton

The men reflected on their roles in the rescue operation and shared both terrifying and humorous stories from the day. Thornton told stories of people literally diving onto his boat and clinging to the chains on the sides in desperate attempts to escape. He also said the Waterway boats normally have a strict limit of 399 passengers. “We pull into port and people are just running, jumping and diving onto the boat, and there’s my co-worker clicking his head-count clicker as fast as he can and yelling, ‘We hit 399!’ as more people jumped on board. I told him to put the clicker away today.”

Hillin recalled seeing the crush of people against the wall and thinking that they needed to do whatever they could to help. So, he sent out the call for “All Available Boats” to report to Governor’s Island where they were given directions on where and when to proceed. “I’ve been in the Coast Guard a very long time. I’ve never seen that many boats in the water at one time. And, somehow, we kept them orderly. There were some close calls, but not one accident. It was truly remarkable.”

Parga said the FDNY boat not only rescued people but helped treat the injured. That was until the water supply at the World Trade Center was destroyed. “Then we had to abandon the rescue and start pumping water for the crews.”

Each man agreed that, while it was the most horrific day, it was the greatest work they have ever done. And it was so memorable watching everyday people come together and help each other, no questions asked.

One last gesture

At the end of the evening, Thornton had one last presentation. “When I was leaving the boat that night, I threw my uniform in the garbage. It was soaked in sweat, covered in ash and smelled really bad. But I wanted to keep something to remember this day. So, I took the flag from the boat. I have kept it tightly sealed for the past 22 years and now I want to present to the museum.”

The gathered crowd stood, applauded, and wiped away tears at this one last selfless gesture by these extraordinary “ordinary people.”

Starting Wednesday, November 8th, Boatlift will be screened daily at the 9/11 Museum in the South Tower Gallery Screening Room.         

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