Stuart Fischoff Ph.D.

The Media Zone

The 9/11 Rescue: Evacuating Manhattan When Panic is Reality Testing

New Yorkers were terrified and wanted to escape from Manhattan.

Posted Nov 04, 2011

Panic in Manhattan on 9/11

Panic in Manhattan on 9/11

A little while ago I finished watching a video that a friend, Joan, emailed to me. It chronicles the evacuation of New York's Manhattan Island over an 8-hour period, on the nightmare day of 9/11. On that day few knew whether or not the planes crashing into the Twin Towers was the beginning of an attack on America or the end or maybe just on NYC—that "Mecca of sodomy and greed." All that tens of thousands of New Yorkers knew was that they were shocked, terrified, confused, and wanted to escape from New York.

The only immediate way to make that escape was not by land, not by air, not by rail, but by water. People went running for their lives to the ports and docks to secure that vital passage. It was scrambling, desperate, frightened chaotic escape. Fellow New Yorkers saw the need swelling and rose up to meet it.

That story is the subject of the video entitled, BOATLIFT, An Untold Tale of 9/11 Resilience. It is, in its own way, America's version of Britain's WWII Dunkirk Evacuation. That evacuation of allied soldiers was accomplished by an armada of civilian and military boats,ranging in size from large military cruisers to civilian commercial and pleasure boats, even human powered, row boats. It happened on the beaches and harbor of Dunkirk, France, between May 26th and the

Dunkirk evacuation

Manhattan's Dunkirk

 early hours of June 3rd, 1940, before the Germans could come and slaughter the troops from the air.

The 9/11 American drama that unfolded like a movie in New York harbors, cast the armada of boats with tugs, Coast guard vessels, ferries, sea taxis fishing boats, and pleasure craft.

I watched the 12-minute video, narrated by Tom Hanks, and literally wept for almost the entire time. I wept with pride. Granted, I'm an easy cry. I eye-glisten and feel pride welling up when I watch a superb ballet company or listen to a virtuouso violinist play Tchaikovsky's violin concert in D. Hell, I used to tear up at Kodak Moment commercials filled with kids and parents and grandparents, or soldiers coming home on leave.

Speaking of which, I can't get through the movie Yankee Doodle Dandy, a biopic about the song and dance man and Broadway musical crown prince, George M. Cohan. It's the scene when Cohan, played by James Cagney, leaves the White House after getting the Medal of Freedom from FDR, just as America is getting ready to enter WWII. Cagney begins to march with the soldiers down Pennsylvania Avenue and they're singing the song Cohan wrote for America's joining the Allies in WWI, Over There, that really grabs me. I not only weep, I get up from my seat and start looking around for the nearest recruiting office to join up. Pride and patriotism drip from my psyche. But, hey, as they say, "WW II—the last good war."

My pride is not that of a jingoist. Not a "love it or leave it," "my country right or wrong" patriotism. It's the kind of patriotism that subscribes to the complete quote, from which the "right or wrong" sentiment was abbreviated and twisted into blind devotion to country. The original quote is from Carl Schurz, a late 19th, early 20th century progressive, German-American legislator, reformer, and journalist. Schurz's words actually were "My Country! When right keep it right; when wrong, set it right!"

But this video tapped into something deeper in my backpack of ego-identities. My tears flowed, not as an American but as a human being. Not for my country, but for my species. Tears flowed watching humans risking their lives to calm the fears, allay the panic and rescue the lives of fellow New Yorkers who saw themselves under attack from the air. Who, why, and to what extent were parameters of information and understanding that were yet to be made clear.

The rampant panic was understandable. The response from fellow New Yorkers with access to boats, civilian or otherwise, was quick and resounding and in 8 hours, the evacuation of "those who wanted off the island" was complete.

The footage of boats, at ground, sea, and air levels, headed to the ports, marinas and other landing areas to aid in the evacuation, is simply thrilling and heart moving. Tom Hanks' narration stays away from histrionics. The visuals, the eye-witness testimony, and the reality of what happened that day are inherently dramatic and evocative on their own.

Oddly, this human marvel, this spontaneous, collective outpouring of humanity and selflessness, has been fairly kept under wraps, or under the radar of, I guess, a majority of Americans—and the rest of the world! I don't know why exactly. Media whim, perhaps. The media holds and the media holds forth. And we vicarious participants in the dramatic, the heroic, the horrific, are unwitting biders of time until a product emerges, like this video on YouTube, that smashes into our national consciousness, our collective ego-ideal; not as a print report or snippet of news video, but as a full-blown, visual-emotional reminder of a monumental triumph of the human spirit.

As I said, these moments make me proud to be human. Social concern is part of our DNA. We could not be a social species without it. We must find other humans inherently reinforcing, unless events and experiences turn us against them. 9/11 with its first responders, police, firemen and maritime Samaritans only burnishes that species pride. This 12 minutes of video makes sure we will remember.

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