“God is continually preparing His heroes, and when the opportunity is right, He puts them into position in an instant. He works so fast, the world wonders where they came from.” A.B. Simpson
September 11, 2001 – New York City: Boat captain Vincent Ardolino and his wife, Adrienne, were watching the morning news in Brooklyn when they became aware of the developing story at the World Trade Center. Initially, Vincent felt like he was watching the movie Towering Inferno. Then the second plane struck the twin towers.
Vincent turned to Adrienne, “Honey, I’ve got to go do something.” Worried, she questioned, “What are you going to do? You are crazy. What if they attack again?” Vincent was adamant, “I am going to take my boat to the city and help. It is something I have to do. I never want to say I should have. If I only save one person, that will be one person that doesn’t have to die today.” He grabbed his coat and hat and left. Adrienne wondered if she would ever see him again.
What began as a routine September morning for the boats working New York Harbor off the tip of lower Manhattan turned into a day that no one would ever forget. The boats in the immediate area couldn’t help but notice the thick, dark smoke engulfing lower Manhattan.
At 9:59 a.m., when the first tower came down, confusion quickly turned to panic. All modes of transportation in and out of Manhattan Island, subways, bridges and tunnels were closed. Boats were the only way to get on or off the island. Hundreds of thousands of people ran south to the water’s edge at the tip of the island, only to be reminded that Manhattan was indeed an island. They were injured, trapped, helpless and frightened.
Shortly after the first tower collapsed, a U.S. Coast Guard call went out requesting all available boats to come to the south tip of Manhattan Island to help with the rescue. And respond they did. Hundreds of boats. All shapes, sizes, descriptions and models converged on lower Manhattan. If it floated, it was used. The Coast Guard didn’t ask the boat captains what their capacity was; they asked them to take as many people as they could possibly fit on board.
When Vincent Ardolino arrived with his Amberjack V fishing boat and crew, thousands of people were lined up along the water’s edge, 10 and 20 deep. Covered in thick dust, they looked like zombies streaming out of the dust and smoke.
The panicked people didn’t care where the boat was going; they just wanted to flee the island for fear of another attack. People forced and begged their way onto ferries, tugboats, party boats and private boats. Some jumped into the Hudson River, planning to swim to New Jersey and had to be rescued. Some boats were so overcrowded that they nearly capsized.
On another boat, the Mary Gellaty, Engineer Robin Jones was also helping with the rescue. “I’ve been on this water for many years,” he said. “I have never seen anything like it. You couldn’t have planned an exercise that would happen that quickly. No lead-time, no training, just people doing what they had to do that day. There were business executives, window washers and housewives helping each other to safety.”
The Great Boat Lift of 9/11 became the largest sea evacuation in history – larger than the evacuation from the beaches of Dunkirk, France, in World War II, when 339,000 British and French soldiers were rescued over nine days. In less than nine hours, 500,000 people were rescued from Lower Manhattan Island by boat.
Vincent Ardolino and his crew made many trips across the harbor to New Jersey that day, evacuating hundreds of people. He would have no regrets. Average, ordinary people coming together when called upon to help each other in an extraordinary way. “I believe everybody has a little hero in them. It’s in there,” concludes Robin Jones. “And it will come out. They will be a hero when they need to be.”