Working on the 9/11 Boatlift Taught Me to Redefine ‘Heroes’
We diminish our shared humanity when we insist on thinking of heroes as exceptional. Heroes are ordinary people facing extraordinary circumstances.
At rush hour on a mid-September evening, the wakes from all the new fast ferries shuttling suits back to New Jersey tossed the 1931 fireboat against the pier. From my spot in the wheelhouse of the boat that had become, for me, like another home, I heard the dock lines squeak and whine—pulled so tight that the force rung out moisture from the rope fibers. What had brought me here on this quiet night was a need for clarity, perspective, or at least some escape. The city’s somber commemorations of the first anniversary of the deadliest terrorist attacks on U.S. soil had left me raw and reeling.
One year earlier, on Friday, Sept. 14, 2001, retired New York City fireboat John J. Harvey returned to her home berth after four days supplying Hudson River water to fight fires at the World Trade Center. Back then I was a newly minted marine engineer. At Ground Zero I had worked as part of the volunteer, civilian crew that served alongside active-duty members of the FDNY Marine Battalion. Hydrants lay buried beneath debris. Water mains had shattered. For days following the towers’ collapse, fireboats provided the only firefighting water available at Ground Zero.
Now, sitting alone in the wheelhouse on the pilot’s bunk atop the homemade denim mattress cover, I listened to the lines groan in rhythmic conversation with the clank of a metal door chain and the patter of new rain on the steel deck above. This high above the waterline, the boat’s rocking smoothed out, creating a long slow arc—more soothing than jarring.
A stack of children’s drawings sitting on the chart table caught my eye. Thank-you cards. Many repeated the same messages, with lines no doubt copied from a chalkboard. But a few stood out. Izamarie’s, for one:
John Harvey, Thank
I wish I could go to your street and read to you this letter to see that you are all okoy
PS: You’re my knew friend
And this one from Joel hit hard:
Dear Crow of the John J Harvey,
Thank you for saving the people. My dad died in the Twin Towers. I do not like the bad people that caused the twin Towers to fall. “I feel sad for the people.”
Love, Joel F.
After the Harvey was called back into service, the word “hero” followed us everywhere. New York City’s mayor presented the boat with a Hero of the Harbor award, and each crewmember was recognized by name in the Congressional Record for our “exceeding valor in aiding the rescue efforts.” We appeared in cartoon form (with our real names and recognizable illustrations) in Maira Kalman’s children’s book FIREBOAT: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey. Then schoolchildren began writing us letters. My male crewmates were heroes, one girl wrote, but I was a “shero.” I was touched by the outpouring, but neither designation sat well with me.
Two decades later, it’s long past time to reframe the typical hero trope. Oversimplified divisions of people into “heroes” and “everyone else” don’t serve any of us. I worry that this dichotomy can diminish both our humanity and our sense of agency, no matter which category we’re assigned. Far too often, I’ve seen that acts of altruistic bravery dubbed heroic wind up construed as somehow superhuman rather than quintessentially humanitarian. Both my service at Ground Zero and the years I’ve spent reporting, writing, and sharing my book Saved at the Seawall: Stories from the September 11 Boat Lift have crystallized my sense that sometimes the hero designation costs more than it delivers.
A chronicle of the largest maritime evacuation in history, my book is anchored in eyewitness accounts that teem with brave and selfless acts. Within minutes after the first plane hit the north tower, ferryboat captains recognized that their vessels were, for many of the civilians caught up in the attack, the quickest way off the island. Straight away, even before most of us understood that this was no accidental crash, ferries served as waterborne ambulances, delivering injured passengers—some burned, some bleeding—across the Hudson River to New Jersey for emergency care. The boat lift expanded from that point forward into a massive, all-day effort. By evening, the remarkably successful, urgently necessary, and entirely unplanned evacuation would grow to include all manner of vessels.
Again and again, captains and crews of tugboats, ferries, sailing yachts, fishing charters, dinner cruisers, thrill-ride go-fast boats, and other vessels made the choice to drop evacuees along safer shores in Brooklyn, Staten Island, New Jersey, and elsewhere, and then point their bows back toward Manhattan, the island on fire.
Many mariners I interviewed didn’t consider their actions as making a choice. They said things like: “You just do what needs to be done.” “There was never a question in my mind.” “You would have done it too.” Maybe they’re wrong and I’m wrong and you wouldn’t have done it. But I remain convinced that the kinds of actions that get dubbed heroic are more accessible to most of us than we tend to acknowledge.
Without pause, mariners returned over and over again to Manhattan’s seawall to save still more people until 400,000 to 500,000 adults and children had been evacuated. Using all available resources, including creative improvisation and careful rule-breaking, mariners and so many others chose kindness and compassion over self-interest. Their dauntlessness emerged not out of some distinct, essential hero nature, I argue, but through recognition of shared humanity.
Former New York Waterway port captain Michael McPhillips told me he considered himself “lucky” to have been part of the boat lift, despite the serious health consequences that wound up ending his maritime career. “We saved a lot of people. I really think that’s why I feel like I was lucky. Not that we had a choice, because…” Here, he paused to reconsider. “Well, I guess we did have a choice. We could have just not acted. But that’s not in our DNA… If you ask anybody that was down there, they’d do it again tomorrow.” The questions I’m carrying about heroes exist in the liminal space of McPhillip’s ellipses. Not in whose DNA? Exactly who possesses this reflexive drive to help others? All of us do, I believe. And if more of us recognized and honored our innate capacities and inclination toward taking such action, we’d all be better off.
Throughout history, people confronting catastrophes of all kinds have stepped forward, again and again, to help each other. Disaster research reveals that the first first responders are almost always civilians, just regular people. Many urgent tasks are quite ordinary: loading trucks, making phone calls, sharing food, sweeping up. Almost everyone, even with no special training, has the capacity to help. And many do. Does that make them heroes? Or simply humans in touch with their humanity?
Where, you might ask, does this line of inquiry leave responders who do have emergency training, like firefighters? I’ve worked with lots of firefighters, “volly” and career, during my two decades as a marine engineer. I can’t say I’ve ever met any self-proclaimed heroes. Instead, I’ve seen that appellation thrust upon them by others and witnessed the squirming discomfort that results.
Chief Joseph Pfeifer, the first FDNY chief on scene at the World Trade Center after the first plane hit, has thought long and hard about heroism. In his new memoir, he shares how he and the fire department community wrestled with the meaning of the word during the months of numbing grief that followed the attacks. During his 37 years on the job, Chief Pfeifer commanded responses to several of New York City’s most significant emergencies and served as founding director of FDNY’s Center for Terrorism and Disaster Preparedness. As senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, he has worked with terrorism and disaster responders from around the globe.
Truth be told, I had come to Chief Pfeifer’s Ordinary Heroes: A Memoir of 9/11, with some apprehension, based on the title alone. I worried the narrative might get bogged down in pageantry and pomp. In reality, the key word for Pfeifer was “ordinary,” as in the “ordinary acts of kindness” he saw on full display that day. He said his experiences at the World Trade Center didn’t change his personal definition of heroism, only intensified it. Each one of us has, he wrote, “the power to make a difference by doing ordinary things in life’s most challenging moments.”
When I asked if he knew anyone who thought of themselves as a hero, he just shook his head, “no,” and smiled. Too often, our conceptions about what constitutes heroism, he explained, come from growing up with the idea of superheroes. This more-than-human construction establishes a standard we don’t see ourselves attaining. “I cannot be a superhero; It’s difficult to do that. And because of that, we’re left lost. And then we go back to something like 9/11, where they’ve made firefighters into these superheroes…” he said, trailing off.
By way of explanation, he picked up the thread to share a story about a group of teenagers who’d visited his firehouse after watching the 2002 documentary 9/11. “One girl piped up and said, ‘I thought you were taller.’” He laughed at the memory. “It was clear,” he wrote in his book that “she perceived firefighters as bigger than life, almost like superheroes.” Maybe, he hoped, she would now be able to recognize her heroes “as more ordinary, someone she could become.”
Without a doubt, the rescue and recovery efforts performed that day demanded profound sacrifice. Some people wound up giving everything for the sake of others, including Chief Pfeifer’s brother, Kevin, a lieutenant in Engine Company 33. Pfeifer last laid eyes on him in the lobby of the North Tower when he ordered him to take his company “up the B stairs to the 70th floor and evacuate occupants along the way.”
“Your brother saved my life,” a captain later told the chief, explaining how Kevin and Company 33 had interrupted their own evacuation to redirect other firefighters to a safer stairwell leading directly out of the building. “He saved a lot of lives.” In doing so, he gave up his own.
“People knew they were running into danger, and made a personal decision to go in,” said Pfeifer. “We saw so many of those acts, and not just by first responders but many others too, from the boats to the people on the floors, helping each other.”
What spurs someone to make that choice—to walk up those stairs when they know they might not come back down? I asked. “Shared risk,” Chief Pfeifer replied. “We lost people from firefighter rank to chief of department and everything in between, and particularly my rank. We had 23 battalion chiefs respond before the collapse, and only four of us survived. So we were sharing the risk with one another. And that builds a level of trust.”
Countless actions that day exemplify the extraordinary sacrifices that responders—official and otherwise—made to help others. In no way do I mean to diminish those contributions. Yet, if we reframe our notions of heroism to include more of the ordinary actions that many people took under these extraordinary circumstances, perhaps it won’t take another catastrophe for us to recognize the opportunities each of us have to de-center ourselves and root our choices in compassion and kindness. Of course, life-or-death moments help surface the raw humanity that can help us see ourselves in strangers—to recognize their humanness as our own. Daily life offers such chances too.
To be sure, designating certain individuals as heroes helps societies to reinforce pro-social behavior. Certainly, societies need mechanisms to reinforce the choices people make that benefit the common good. We need models to aspire to—people who embody our best selves. Everyday citizens also need pathways for expressing their gratitude to those who serve the public. That’s one role that pomp and pageantry can serve. Rightly so. It makes good societal sense to publicly applaud and appreciate those who give of themselves for others. What gets us into trouble are essentialist divisions between categories of individuals that limit all of our potential and humanity.
So, what parts of hero narratives serve us well? Those that preserve the humanness and “ordinariness” within the concept of heroism. By emphasizing heroic acts, perhaps we can include more people in the circle of those who see themselves as helpers capable of heroism. The truth is, we lose sight of our own agency to step forward for others at our own peril.
There’s nothing like a cocktail of climate crisis and global pandemic to show us just how interconnected and interdependent we really are. In a recent piece for Stat, “Calling health-care workers ‘heroes’ harms all of us,” Matthew Lewis, Zac M. Willette, and Brian Park served up the “unwelcome observation” that the word “hero” is making health care workers’ lives “even harder.” They argue that the “actions” of frontline workers “are indeed often heroic. But to support and honor them, we need to stop using the word hero.” Glorifying their sacrifices disregards all the very human fears and frustrations that these professionals confront and surmount each shift. The hero pedestal casts a long shadow. It can wind up obscuring real human pain and fortitude.
Recognizing the Sept. 11 boat lift as a landmark event in our history has been critical to my own understanding of the hope and humanity that’s possible amid disaster. This piece of our heritage shows who we have been for one another and reminds me of who we can be again. Today and tomorrow. Upending common assumptions about heroism and remembering the risky, generous, and compassionate choices made by so many different helpers highlights who we are when we’re at our best. Re-centering our shared humanity is precisely the antidote we need during divisive, catastrophic times.
Jessica DuLong is a Brooklyn-based author, editor, and collaborator/coach who helps writers develop a wide array of narrative nonfiction books. SAVED AT THE SEAWALL: Stories from the September 11 Boat Lift is the definitive history of the largest ever waterborne evacuation. MY RIVER CHRONICLES: Rediscovering the Work that Built America won the 2010 American Society of Journalists and Authors Outstanding Book Award for memoir. A USCG-licensed marine engineer, DuLong served aboard retired 1931 NYC fireboat John J. Harvey for two decades, 11 years as chief.