The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, was clear and sunny, a perfect day to hop on the newly operational, high-speed commuter ferry from Glen Cove to Lower Manhattan. Glen Cove resident Patty Bourne took the early ferry for the first time — and while she was one of the lucky ones who eventually made it safely back to Long Island, she never expected to be one of the last few to have an enjoyable ride across the water that day.
“Having the ferry in Glen Cove was very exciting,” Bourne said. “I usually took the train in when I had to go to the city, but I thought this was a good reason to try out the ferry. And it was very impressive — it felt like a high-end airplane.”
For Bourne, a former director of Glen Cove’s Community Development Agency who worked in Suffolk County at the time, the situation was fortuitous. Because she had taken the early ferry west for a conference at Federal Plaza, she was already inside the building, in an interior conference room, when the first plane hit the World Trade Center’s north tower.
Back in Glen Cove, as the tragedy unfolded, the ferry played an integral part in bringing people to safety. An estimated 6,000 people were evacuated by ferry from Manhattan that day.
The high-speed ferry had been operating since mid-May that year, with two 45-minute trips to the city in the morning and two back to Glen Cove in the evening, with another craft going to New London, Conn. That Tuesday morning, however, the ferry became an emergency vehicle, helping those who desperately wanted to get out of Manhattan. “It was an exhausting all-day effort, all hands on deck,” U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi recalled, “and Glen Cove was an important site for evacuating people for the whole tristate region.”
Suozzi was the mayor of Glen Cove at the time, and was running for Nassau County executive in the primary that was supposed to be held that day. Soon after he learned about the attacks on the twin towers, Suozzi recounted, a Glen Cove Hospital emergency room doctor called him to let him know that the hospital could take patients from the World Trade Center if they could get there. Suozzi called the ferry operators and told them they needed to repurpose the boat, and they agreed.
“I went into emergency-management mode,” Suozzi said. “All I could think was, I have to do everything I can right now to help.”
Asking for volunteers
In addition to getting people out of the city, he said, his plan to was transport volunteer doctors, nurses and emergency responders to the site of the attacks to help the survivors. When he called Nassau County Emergency Management, however, he was informed that New York City Emergency Management was headquartered in the World Trade Center. So Suozzi continued making calls to see who could help, and even went on CNN, asking doctors, nurses, firefighters and medics who wanted to volunteer to come to Glen Cove and take the ferry to Manhattan.
The ferry terminal became a central hub of activity, as volunteers gathered — including all of Glen Cove’s volunteer firefighters and EMS personnel — while local restaurants delivered food. “Every member of the EMS showed up that day,” Tony Jimenez, a former City Councilman and volunteer EMS, said. “Every member of the Fire Department reported. Hundreds of people showed up to volunteer to help that day. That was the feeling: Everybody wanted to do something.”
At around 3:45 p.m., Suozzi said, he received word from Richard Sheirer, commissioner of New York City Emergency Management: “Don’t bring anyone in. There are no survivors.”
“It was quite deflating,” Suozzi said.
In the era before smartphones, when not everyone had cellphones, communication was an issue. On top of that, the volume of calls the ferry terminal received in response to Suozzi’s plea for help caused the phone system to crash. And there was no clear communication between various agencies and departments in charge.
“People kept repeating things they’d heard from survivors, but there was nobody to talk to about what was really happening,” Suozzi recalled. “All these people were very anxious, because they wanted to do something. They were worried about their relatives, and they wanted to help.”
Finally, he said, several people were designated to take the ferry to Manhattan and find out what was happening. “It turned out they really didn’t need the help,” Suozzi said, “because there weren’t any survivors.”
Suozzi estimated that the two ferries made between 20 and 30 round trips that day, and the people who arrived were from all over Long Island as well as New Jersey and Connecticut. They had seen the ferry as the easiest way to get out of New York City.
Jimenez was one of several people who took the ferry into Manhattan to aid with potential recovery. But, he said, when they arrived, they could do little but confirm that medical help wasn’t needed. “There were very few survivors with severe injuries, but a lot of walking wounded,” he said, “and a lot of injuries caused by all of the smoke, particles in their eyes and lungs.”
The ‘ghost people’
Those who gathered at the Glen Cove ferry terminal soon coined a term for the evacuees who disembarked there, covered in soot and ash. “The ‘ghost people’ had an entire cement color, covered head to toe,” Jimenez said. “Most were just relieved as they got off the ferry, and some had no idea how to get off the Island … they just wanted to get out of Manhattan, so they came here. Then arrangements were made, and a group of volunteers drove people home, and buses were lined up to take people to their home destinations.”
Mike Basile, a volunteer with Glen Cove EMS for more than 30 years, also took the ferry into Manhattan. He went back two days later to help with the recovery efforts at ground zero. “It was a tough time,” he said, “like nothing I’ve ever seen before.”
Steve Nelson was a critical-care EMT and captain of Glen Cove EMS at the time. He and a small crew took an ambulance and were part of a caravan of first responders heading into the city. They ended up at a New York City Fire Department EMS station under the FDR Drive. “By the time we got there, anyone who needed help initially had been helped,” Nelson recalled. “We ended up hanging out at the station, [and] took a ride down to South Ferry around 11 p.m. It was as if the building was snowing. It was a horrible burning electrical type of smell. It was awful. Slept in the ambulance, went back down in the morning, treated a couple of cuts and scrapes, and headed out in late afternoon. There was very little for us to do.”
Nelson, who became Glen Cove’s EMS chief in 2002-03 and is still an active member, said the anniversary makes him emotional every year. “It’s a day one can never forget, seeing what we saw,” he said. “Every year it’s an incredibly sad day for me. I’ve shed tears nearly every year on the 11th, and there’s no reason to expect it’ll be any different this year.”
Frank Harrington was a resident of Locust Valley in 2001, though he has since moved to Miami. That morning, he got up early to hand out Suozzi campaign literature in at the Manhasset Long Island Rail Road Station. “I was having a ball,” Harrington recalled. “It was a beautiful day. One thing I think about periodically is how many [commuters] I gave pamphlets to who didn’t make it home that night.”
Harrington worked for Marsh McLennan, on the 94th floor of Tower One. While on the train from Douglaston, he called his boss to tell her he’d be late. By the time he arrived at Penn Station, he knew something wasn’t right. He stayed in Midtown, and eventually got a cab back to his car in Douglaston.
“I’ve never had a bad day since,” Harrington said. “I’ve had miserable moments, but never a bad day.”
He said he does joke with Suozzi about “owing my life” to him. “If I hadn’t been passing out literature, I would not be with us,” Harrington said. “It was a very tragic day, but I was very lucky. I lost a lot of colleagues, friends. … That little act had huge ramifications.”
Patty Bourne, who took the ferry for the first time that morning, also counts herself as lucky. The other passengers, she recalled, were a mix of commuters and people going in to do some sightseeing, as she noticed some mothers with children. “I always think about them, and wonder what happened to those other people,” Bourne said. “Were they protected?”
She also thinks about the strength of New York City. “In the last 15 years or so, I see how resilient we are as a population,” she said. “The location is active again now. We rebuilt and moved on.”
But, she said, she also believes in the power of prayer, and thinks it might have helped that the world was praying together. “It could’ve been so much worse,” Bourne said. “So many people were heroes and heroines that day.”