America’s Dunkirk – the 9/11 Boatlift

September 11, 2001, will go down in history as a day of infamy on the level of Pearl Harbor — a sneak attack against America by a ruthless, brutal enemy. That day has left a bitter legacy of destruction, grief and vengeance that’s still tearing lives apart 18 years later.

What it also did, though, was show how Americans can come together in the face of adversity and accomplish incredible feats of community and self-sacrifice. We were hit by a surprise attack, the boldest and most murderous terrorist assault in human history, but we didn’t break under the onslaught. Instead, we stood shoulder to shoulder to save lives and minimize the damage as much as possible.

We all know about the sacrifice of the first responders who went into the blazing towers of the WTC again and again, until they were either forced out by the flames or died still trying to rescue trapped victims, but did you know that many ordinary Americans stepped up to help hundreds of thousands of people get off Manhattan Island in the aftermath of the attack?

In the chaos after the planes hit, New York’s transport network ground to a halt. Roads and bridges were closed, subway services canceled — and half a million people trapped on Manhattan Island with no way to get off it and start making their way home.

The US Coast Guard was the only government agency that could evacuate these people, but the numbers involved were too great for its small inshore cutters to make much of a dent in the challenge, but they did what they could. Then New York Harbor tugs and workboats fired up their engines and joined in, packing commuters onto their decks for the trip across the river. Yachtsmen saw what was happening and headed for the marinas to bring their own boats into action. Soon, almost everything that could float was shuttling evacuees from Lower Manhattan to relative safety.

The British are rightfully proud of the 1940 Dunkirk evacuation when the Royal Navy and a fleet of “little ships” rescued 338,226 British and French soldiers from the advancing Nazis and ferried them to safety in England. That took nine days. New York’s own little ships evacuated more than 500,000 people in just nine hours.

Sometimes a sneak attack will paralyze its victim and leave them vulnerable to the next blow. Sometimes, though, it will only strengthen their resolve. The way New Yorkers pulled together on that evil September day 18 years ago showed the world our resolve. There’s a lesson there — for us, and for those who would do us harm. Despite our disagreements, Americans stand together when we have to.

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