boats approaching Lower Manhattan while it's covered in smoke
Courtesy of Reinauer Crew

Rescue at the Water’s Edge

The story of the September 11 attacks and the largest boat rescue in history

By Allison Friedman
From the September 2021 Issue

Learning Objective: to write an essay about the hope, courage, and heroism that can be found in a story about September 11, 2001

Lexiles: 920L, 830L
Other Key Skills: key ideas and details, figurative language, text structure, author’s craft, mood, supporting a claim
AS YOU READ

Look for examples of courage and hope.

Eleven-year-old Thomas Panevino couldn’t believe his eyes. He stared in shock at the New York City skyline, where only a few hours earlier, the city’s two tallest buildings—the Twin Towers—had stretched toward the sky. In their place now was a massive dark cloud, like a monster looming over the city.

It was September 11, 2001. Two planes had been deliberately crashed into the towers, causing them to collapse. Thomas and his dad were on a small police boat heading across the Hudson River toward New Jersey. All around them, dozens of other boats were also carrying frightened people away from the scene of the attacks in lower Manhattan.

Thomas clutched a cage holding Eddie, the family’s miniature poodle. Suddenly, he heard someone cry out, “The boat is sinking!” Thomas saw the back of the boat dipping under the surface of the water. Passengers squeezed toward the front of the boat as the engine began to cough and spit.

They were only about halfway across the river. Thomas gripped Eddie’s cage and fixed his eyes on the dock ahead.

Would they make it?

Eleven-year-old Thomas Panevino couldn’t believe his eyes. He stared in shock at the New York City skyline. Only a few hours earlier, the city’s two tallest buildings—the Twin Towers—had stretched toward the sky. In their place now was a huge dark cloud, like a monster looming over the city.

It was September 11, 2001. Two planes had crashed into the towers on purpose, causing them to collapse. Thomas and his dad were on a small police boat heading across the Hudson River toward New Jersey. All around them, dozens of other boats were also carrying frightened people away from the scene of the attacks in lower Manhattan.

Thomas clutched a cage holding Eddie, the family’s miniature poodle. Suddenly, he heard someone cry out, “The boat is sinking!” Thomas saw the back of the boat dipping under the surface of the water. Passengers squeezed toward the front of the boat as the engine began to cough and spit.

They were only about halfway across the river. Thomas gripped Eddie’s cage and fixed his eyes on the dock ahead.

Would they make it?

Jim McMahon/Mapman®

New York City, 2001

Earlier that morning, but what felt like a lifetime ago, Thomas had walked by the Twin Towers on the way to his second day of seventh grade. He and his mom had passed the two glittering skyscrapers as they headed from their apartment in lower Manhattan to Thomas’s middle school 10 minutes away. Part of a large complex called the World Trade Center, the 110-story towers could be seen for miles around.

“If you get lost, look for the World Trade Center,” his mom, Judi, had been telling Thomas since he was a child. “You’ll always find your way home.”

That day, Thomas had Spanish first period. His teacher, Jorge, was teaching the students a song when, at 8:46 a.m., a deafening vroooooom startled the class. Thomas and his classmates whipped their faces toward the windows just in time to see a silver airplane shoot across the sky and crash into one of the Twin Towers. Thick black smoke immediately poured from a gash in the building, billowing up into the picture-perfect blue sky.

Jorge ushered everyone into a line, and the class began to evacuate to the cafeteria. They had barely made it into the hallway when Thomas saw his dad, Vincent, rushing toward him. Vincent had been about to leave for work when he heard the explosion and ran to the school.

As the two hurried outside, Vincent called Thomas’s mom. Every morning before work, Judi got coffee with friends in the World Trade Center. But the call wouldn’t go through. Across the city, thousands of other people were also trying to reach loved ones, overloading cell phone towers. Thomas and his dad decided to head home to see if Judi was there.

Earlier that morning, Thomas had walked by the Twin Towers on the way to his second day of seventh grade. He and his mom had passed the two giant skyscrapers as they headed from their apartment in lower Manhattan to Thomas’s middle school 10 minutes away. The Twin Towers were part of a large complex called the World Trade Center. At 110 stories tall, they could be seen for miles around.

“If you get lost, look for the World Trade Center,” his mom, Judi, had been telling Thomas since he was a child. “You’ll always find your way home.”

That day, Thomas had Spanish first period. His teacher, Jorge, was teaching the students a song when, at 8:46 a.m., a loud vroooooom startled the class. Thomas and his classmates whipped their faces toward the windows—just in time to see a silver airplane shoot across the sky and crash into one of the Twin Towers. Thick black smoke poured from a gash in the building and billowed up into the picture-perfect blue sky.

Jorge got everyone into a line, and the class began to evacuate to the cafeteria. They had barely made it into the hallway when Thomas saw his dad, Vincent, rushing toward him. Vincent had been about to leave for work when he heard the explosion and ran to the school.

As the two hurried outside, Vincent called Thomas’s mom. Every morning before work, Judi got coffee with friends in the World Trade Center. But the call wouldn’t go through. Thousands of other people across the city were also trying to reach loved ones. Cell phone towers were overloaded. Thomas and his dad decided to head home to see if Judi was there.

Shutterstock.com

The Towers

The World Trade Center’s Twin Towers were two of the tallest, most recognizable buildings in the world. About 35,000 people worked in the towers. An additional 70,000 people visited or passed through each day.

Under Attack

Five miles southwest of Manhattan, at the Coast Guard station on Staten Island, officer Carlos Perez was midway through his morning routine when the station’s search-and-rescue alarm went off. The Coast Guard is the branch of the U.S. military that helps protect seas, lakes, and rivers. As an officer stationed in New York City, Perez was part of a team that protected the city’s busy harbor.

That morning, as on every morning, ferry boats carried more than 90,000 commuters to work in Manhattan—the long, thin island at the heart of New York City. Stout tugboats pushed huge, boxy ships piled high with cargo. Tour boats filled up with tourists getting ready to snap pictures of the Statue of Liberty. Sailboats skimmed gracefully through the water. It was Perez’s job to make sure every boat followed maritime laws and made it through the harbor safely.

At first, Perez didn’t take the alarm seriously. Lately, it had been malfunctioning. Still, he stepped outside the station to be sure. That’s when he saw flames and smoke curling up from the top of the North Tower. A plane has crashed into the tower by accident, he thought.

Within minutes, he and his team had gathered their gear and were speeding toward lower Manhattan in their boat. At 23 years old, Perez was relatively new to the Coast Guard. This was the first time he was in charge of his own boat on a search-and-rescue mission.

Around 9 a.m., as Perez and his crew passed the Statue of Liberty on their way to the southern tip of Manhattan, they noticed a plane flying too low. The plane swooped out of sight for a moment—only to reappear in front of their boat. The plane was heading straight toward the World Trade Center.

The team watched in stunned silence as the plane slammed into the South Tower. A giant fireball exploded from the point of impact. Now both towers were spewing out thick, dark plumes of smoke, like two giant chimneys rising up from the city.

This is no accident, Perez realized. We’re under attack.

Five miles southwest of Manhattan, at the Coast Guard station on Staten Island, officer Carlos Perez was midway through his morning routine when an alarm went off. The Coast Guard is the branch of the U.S. military that helps protect seas, lakes, and rivers. As an officer in New York City, Perez was part of a team that protected the city’s busy harbor.

That morning, as on every morning, ferry boats carried more than 90,000 people to work in Manhattan—the long, thin island at the heart of New York City. Tugboats pushed huge ships piled high with cargo. Tour boats filled up with tourists getting ready to snap pictures of the Statue of Liberty. Sailboats moved gracefully through the water. It was Perez’s job to make sure every boat followed maritime laws and made it through the harbor safely.

At first, Perez didn’t take the alarm seriously. Lately, it had not been working properly. Still, he stepped outside the station to be sure. That’s when he saw flames and smoke curling up from the top of the North Tower. A plane has crashed into the tower by accident, he thought.

Within minutes, he and his team were speeding toward lower Manhattan in their boat. At 23 years old, Perez was somewhat new to the Coast Guard. This was the first time he was in charge of his own boat on a search-and-rescue mission.

Around 9 a.m., Perez and his crew made their way to the southern tip of Manhattan. They noticed a plane flying too low. The plane flew out of sight for a moment—only to reappear in front of their boat. The plane was heading straight toward the World Trade Center.

The team watched in stunned silence as the plane slammed into the South Tower. A giant fireball exploded from where the plane hit the building. Now both towers were spewing out thick, dark plumes of smoke, like two giant chimneys rising up from the city.

This is no accident, Perez realized. We’re under attack.

New York City Police Department (rescue boats); New York Council of the Navy League (boat)

The Rescue

More than 150 boats of all shapes and sizes raced toward Manhattan to evacuate people after the attacks. Inset: This is a Coast Guard boat like the one that Carlos Perez used to evacuate people from lower Manhattan.

Acts of Terror

As Perez and the rest of the world would soon find out, the attacks on the World Trade Center had been carried out by a terrorist group called Al Qaeda. The group was based in Afghanistan, a country in Asia, and led by a man named Osama bin Laden.

Bin Laden and his supporters were opposed to the influence that Western countries had in the world. And the U.S. had become their main target. Al Qaeda had begun planning the September 11 attacks years earlier, targeting buildings that symbolized the American military and government as well as American business and culture.

That morning, 19 members of Al Qaeda seized control of four airplanes and turned them into flying bombs. One hit the Pentagon, the headquarters of the U.S. military, near Washington, D.C. Another crashed into a field in Pennsylvania, but many believe it was headed for the White House or the Capitol. The other two planes were flown into the Twin Towers, in the heart of New York City’s financial district.

Perez and the rest of the world would soon find out that the attacks on the World Trade Center had been carried out by a terrorist group called Al Qaeda. The group was based in Afghanistan, a country in Asia. It was led by a man named Osama bin Laden.

Bin Laden and his supporters were opposed to the influence that Western countries had in the world. And the U.S. had become their main target. Al Qaeda had begun planning the September 11 attacks years earlier. The group targeted buildings that symbolized the American military and government as well as American business and culture.

That morning, 19 members of Al Qaeda took control of four airplanes and turned them into flying bombs. One hit the Pentagon, the headquarters of the U.S. military, near Washington, D.C. Another crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. Many believe it was headed for the White House or the Capitol. The other two planes were flown into the Twin Towers, in the heart of New York City’s financial district.

Avalanche of Dust

When Thomas and his dad arrived at their apartment, there was no sign of Judi. Thomas scooped Eddie into his carrier while Vincent left a note: “I have Thomas. He’s OK, and we have the dog. See you soon.” Then they stepped back outside into the unfolding chaos. A police officer spotted them and told them to head downtown toward the waterfront, away from the smoking towers.

Out on the water, Perez was trying to shake off his shock.

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘OK, what do I do here?’” he says. “You don’t train for planes hitting buildings.” That’s when, around 10 a.m., a thunderous rumbling filled the air.

BOOM. BOOM. BOOM.

Floor by floor, the South Tower was collapsing. The heat from the fire had melted the steel frame. In just 10 seconds, the building was reduced to a pile of rubble.

Perez watched in horror as an avalanche of dust spilled from the tower’s ruins and began barreling through the city, wrapping around building after building. It raced out over the water—and right toward the boat. The crew slammed on the throttle and shot away in the opposite direction, but the cloud was moving too quickly. In seconds, it swallowed them up.

Perez felt as if he were caught in the middle of a furious blizzard. “Everything around me was just white,” he says. “We couldn’t see anything out there.”

Less than half an hour later, around 10:30 a.m., another loud rumbling began, followed by the boom-boom-boom of floors thudding into each other. The North Tower was collapsing, releasing another monstrous wave of dust over lower Manhattan and the waterfront.

When the dust cleared, Perez saw thousands of panicked people jamming together along the water’s edge. Covered in a thick coating of gray ash, they looked like ghosts floating through a ruined land.

Now Perez’s mission was clear: Rescue as many as possible.

When Thomas and his dad arrived at their apartment, there was no sign of Judi. Thomas put Eddie into his carrier while Vincent left a note: “I have Thomas. He’s OK, and we have the dog. See you soon.” Then they stepped back outside into the unfolding chaos. A police officer told them to head downtown to the waterfront, away from the smoking towers.

Out on the water, Perez was trying to shake off his shock.

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘OK, what do I do here?’” he says. “You don’t train for planes hitting buildings.” That’s when, around 10 a.m., a loud rumbling filled the air.

BOOM. BOOM. BOOM.

Floor by floor, the South Tower was collapsing. The heat from the fire had melted the steel frame. In just 10 seconds, the building was reduced to a pile of rubble.

Perez watched in horror as an avalanche of dust spilled from the tower’s ruins and began barreling through the city. It wrapped around building after building. It raced out over the water—and right toward the boat. The crew slammed on the throttle and shot away in the opposite direction. But the cloud was moving too quickly. It swallowed them up in seconds.

Perez felt as if he were caught in the middle of a furious blizzard. “Everything around me was just white,” he says. “We couldn’t see anything out there.”

Less than half an hour later, another loud rumbling began. It was followed by the boom-boom-boom of floors thudding into each other. The North Tower was collapsing. It released another monstrous wave of dust over lower Manhattan and the waterfront.

When the dust cleared, Perez saw thousands of panicked people jamming together along the water’s edge. Covered in a thick coating of gray ash, they looked like ghosts floating through a ruined land. 

Now Perez’s mission was clear: Rescue as many as possible.

Matt Moyer/Corbis via Getty Images (rescuers); Courtesy of Thomas Panevino (Thomas Panevino)

The Evacuees

New York City police officers help people onto a rescue boat. Inset: This photo of Thomas was taken at the World Trade Center two days before the attacks. 

The Only Way

Thomas and his dad were among the crush of frightened people at the waterfront. As the first tower fell, then the second, they had become part of a growing crowd fleeing toward the southern tip of Manhattan. The city’s bridges, tunnels, and trains had been shut down for security, and roads were snarled with traffic.

For the first time, many New Yorkers became keenly aware of something they didn’t often think about: Manhattan is an island. And now, the water was their only way off. Thomas felt like he was on board the sinking Titanic, waiting desperately for a lifeboat. 

Meanwhile, Perez and his team were picking up people as fast as they could, carrying them to makeshift hospitals being set up in nearby New Jersey, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. They sailed back and forth countless times. But no matter how many people they evacuated, the crowd at the seawall seemed to swell larger and larger. Perez began to feel overwhelmed.

Then he looked out over the water. And that’s when he saw it: dozens of boats, of all shapes and sizes—bright-orange ferries, hardy little tugboats, double-decker party boats, fancy yachts, inflatable rafts—all speeding to the seawall, frothy white wakes trailing behind them like ribbons.

“All these boats just converged on lower Manhattan,” he recalls. 

Thomas remembers seeing them from the waterfront. “Anyone who had a boat brought their boat to the shore to take people,” he says. “Literally anything that could float.”

Thomas and his dad were among the group of frightened people at the waterfront. As the towers fell, they had become part of a growing crowd fleeing toward the southern tip of Manhattan. The city’s bridges, tunnels, and trains had been shut down for security. The roads were packed with traffic.

For the first time, many New Yorkers became very aware of something they didn’t often think about: Manhattan is an island. And now, the water was their only way off. Thomas felt like he was waiting desperately for a lifeboat on board the sinking Titanic.

Meanwhile, Perez and his team were picking up people as fast as they could. They were carrying them to temporary hospitals being set up in nearby New Jersey, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. They sailed back and forth many times. But no matter how many people they evacuated, the crowd at the seawall seemed to grow larger and larger. Perez began to feel overwhelmed.

Then he looked out over the water. And that’s when he saw the boats. There were dozens of boats of all shapes and sizes: bright-orange ferries, hardy little tugboats, double-decker party boats, fancy yachts, inflatable rafts. They were all speeding to the seawall.

“All these boats just converged on lower Manhattan,” he recalls.

Thomas remembers seeing them from the waterfront. “Anyone who had a boat brought their boat to the shore to take people,” he says. “Literally anything that could float.”

Beth A. Keiser/AFP via Getty Images

The Aftermath

Hundreds of firefighters, police officers, and other first responders rushed to the scene of the attacks. In the months that followed, crews worked tirelessly to clear the rubble.

“All Available Boats!”

Soon, hundreds of captains and crews joined Perez and his team. But as the throngs of people at the seawall continued to grow, it was clear they needed even more help. The Coast Guard put out a call over marine radios: “All available boats! Anyone wanting to help with the evacuation of lower Manhattan.”

More mariners answered the call. The waterfront was packed with so many boats that you could step easily from one to the other. Now, in addition to rescuing people himself, Perez was helping coordinate the larger evacuation. He directed boats to spots where they could dock safely and made sure they were not dangerously overloaded with people. Still, boats were being packed with far more passengers than they usually carried, as rescuers tried to help as many people as possible.

That’s what happened with the police boat Thomas and his dad were on. The boat was built for 10 passengers, but it was crammed with three times that many. Shortly after setting off, the boat began to sink, its back end disappearing underwater.

Luckily, they made it to the dock in New Jersey just in time. After climbing safely onto land, Thomas and his dad sat at the dock for hours, hoping Judi would get off one of the boats. But she never did. Eventually, they went to stay with a friend who lived nearby.