‘All hell broke loose.’ NY Waterway captain reflects on Sept. 11 rescues

It is one of the most important tales of heroism on Sept. 11, 2001 – the maritime rescue of thousands of people from Manhattan.
New York Waterway ferries evacuated people trying to escape the terror attack and brought them over to Weehawken.
Before he was called into heroic action, New York Waterway Ferry Capt. Rick Thornton remembers the morning of the attack as a pristine day on the water. He says he was making his normal route between midtown and Weehawken.
"It was a beautiful sunny day like today, late summer. Just perfect weather conditions. Just enjoying the routine,” says Thornton.
Thornton says that he and his crew then saw a low-flying plane.
"Super low, super loud. We saw it impact the north tower,” Thornton says. "Literally all hell broke loose, and every ferry in the New York Waterway fleet of 25 boats all raced to the ground zero World Trade Center area."
The largest maritime evacuation in American history was about to unfold. Thornton says he saw the fear in the eyes of his passengers who were desperate to climb aboard.
"People streaming out of the buildings right to the waterfront. They were all trapped along the waterfront and some of them were actually leaping into the water,” he says. “And they were terrified. Screaming, crying, some of them were fumbling with their cellphones, sheer panic."
It is believed that those ferries helped rescue roughly half a million people on that fateful day.
Thornton says that day was likely the defining moment of his life.
“I wouldn't want to have the day off, I wouldn't want to be watching it on TV or on vacation in Florida, I was proud of every single person that helped that day,” Thornton says.
Thornton has been on the job for 35 years. He says that no other day on the job will ever be as important as Sept. 11, 2001.