WEEHAWKEN, NJ (PIX11) — September 11, 2001 marks a dark time in our history; it also marks a massive maritime rescue.
Half a million people were evacuated from New York City by boats when the Twin Towers were struck. Ferry Captain Rick Thorton loaded thousands of people onto his boat and helped them to safety. He remembers it being like “the last lifeboat leaving” the Titanic, noting there was pushing, shoving, screaming and chaos.
Thorton woke up that day more than 20 years ago for his regular shift at the NY Waterway ferry. Normally, he brought commuters back and forth between Weehawken and Midtown Manhattan.
He thought it was a tragic accident when the first plane struck the Twin Towers. When the second plane hit, he sprang into action without asking anyone for permission, he said.
“Don’t tell the boss this, but I was supposed to be continuing my shift up here until about 10 o clock,” he said. “Pulled a 180, raced down to the World Trade Center area. I didn’t call anybody, so sorry about that, but, you know, your instincts kick in.”
He ended up making 20 trips across the Hudson River, rescuing as many people as possible.
“From every dock, every pier, whether it was a ferry dock or not, we just started seeing people along the waterfront and started getting them out,” he said.
The capacity of his boat was good for 399 people.
“They said, ‘hey cap, we’re at 399.’ And I said, ‘well, just stop counting. There’s plenty of room.’ Who is gonna say we can’t fit anymore people? These people are certainly going to die if we don’t get them on the boat,” he said.
Because the bridges, tunnels, and mass transit shut down, the only way out was by foot or by sea. The NY Waterway helped evacuate about 150,000 people on 9/11. It was part of a massive effort between the U.S. Coast guard, merchant ships, private vessels, and NYPD and FDNY boats, which in total helped rescue 500,000 survivors — the largest maritime rescue in history.
With 32 years on the job, Captain Thorton is still working and is recognized often.
“I get people who say, ‘hey I remember you from 9/11’ or ‘you pulled me out of the water’ because there was people actually jumping into the water,” he said.
Come Sunday, Thorton will be part of a tribute event. Ferries will come to a complete stop in the water at the same times as when the Twin Towers were struck. They’ll blast the ship horns in remembrance of the lives lost on 9/11.