‘We stopped counting:’ Former captain of Kingston’s newest ferry recalls evacuating thousands on 9/11

Kingston’s newest ferry, the Finest, no doubt had its finest hour on September 11, 2001, when it carried 4,000 frightened, desperate people, many gravely injured, to safety following the terrorist attacks on Manhattan’s World Trade Center. It was part of the makeshift fleet of tugboats, sightseeing boats, yachts, fire and police boats, Coast Guard vessels and ferries that came together that day to boatlift more than 500,000 survivors off the island, more than those rescued from Dunkirk during World War II, according to the U.S. Naval Institute. It was, in fact, the largest sea evacuation in history.

Like the British and French soldiers at Dunkirk, people south of the Twin Towers were trapped. There was no way out except by water. Subways, tunnels and bridges were closed minutes after the towers were hit. The streets were soon clogged with debris and burning wreckage, the air was filled with ash, smoke and toxic dust.

Richard Naruszewicz, then the captain of the Finest, would work for 28 hours without stopping under dangerous, horrific conditions.

It was complete mayhem

On 9/11, the Finest was a commuter ferry taking people from Highlands, New Jersey, in Sandy Hook Bay to Manhattan five times a day during rush hours. Naruszewicz, then 42 years old, had just unloaded passengers at Wall Street’s Pier 11 and was on his way to his second stop at East 34th Street when a deckhand told him he saw a plane hit the North Tower.

“I had seen the plane coming in, flying low, but I didn’t think anything of it. ‘Are you sure they’re not making a movie?’ I asked him. Then I saw the tower was red hot, glowing, and burning what I knew could only be jet fuel.” He announced to the passengers that he was turning the ferry around, going back to Pier 11 to see if anyone needed help. By the time he got there, the second plane had hit the South Tower.

“Already there was complete mayhem. Thousands of people were running towards the water. We were the second boat to arrive. We let down the ramps and the people just surged on. We took on double the number of people we’re supposed to, but we couldn’t turn anyone away,” he said. “At this point, people were mostly in shock. It wasn’t until later we took on the really injured.”

He made his way back to Highlands, about 20 miles away, while other boats arrived to help with the evacuation. There was no formal plan for such a large-scale rescue operation and, by the time the Coast Guard called for “all available boats,” the boatlift was well underway.

Naruszewicz was returning to Pier 11 when he saw the South Tower collapse. “I was in the wheelhouse. The sound was incredible — like 50 sonic booms. I went deaf for a few minutes. The ferry shook from side to side. There was a thick cloud of smoke and dust. It was coming in through the air conditioning ducts, so we shut off the ventilation system. I wet my T-shirt and put it over my nose and mouth and kept going.” Less than an hour later, the North Tower went down.

People were jumping into the water

“On my second trip back, I had to fish out two people from the water. One was a 26-year-old pregnant woman who was trying to swim to Brooklyn. The other was a man who was hysterical. He tried to fight us, so we had to restrain him,” Naruszewicz said.

As the hours went by, people became more frantic to get away, lining the seawalls, jumping onto boats as they pulled out. And more of them were injured. “We would load up in minutes. People were covered in dust and dirt. We gave them whatever water we had so they could wash the stuff out of their eyes,” says Naruszewicz.

He made nine round trips that day. “In Jersey, as passengers were getting off, we immediately started refueling. As soon as the last person disembarked, we threw the fuel nozzles on the dock and took off, back to lower Manhattan to pick up more survivors. It was like the Indy 500,” he said. “I was helping to count people coming on board, using a clicker, but my fingers went numb. We stopped counting.”

Medical and decontamination squads were set up to meet passengers on the Jersey side. “The largest decontamination triage center was in Highlands,” he said. “I remember there were two trailers set up, one for men, one for women, and people would go in to take a shower and get clean clothes and blankets.”

Visibility was so poor near Manhattan that boats had to use radar to dock. “By 10 p.m., Manhattan was completely dark. I turned the spotlight on the ramps, so people could see them, and they came by the hundreds out of nowhere. They’d been waiting, maybe hiding,” he said.

Naruszewicz recalls one of his last runs on the Finest: “We went in, lowered the ramp, and no one came. I looked into the beam of the spotlight, and it looked like it was snowing dust — a complete whiteout. We almost couldn’t see the ramp. We sat there quietly for about five minutes and people started to trickle on. Some of them looked like they were sleepwalking.”

“I tell people, never forget”

The Finest and The Bravest, nicknames for the New York City police and firefighters, were owned by New York Fast Ferry at the time. Built in 1996, they were the first high-speed catamaran ferries in New York Harbor and could carry 349 passengers plus crew.

After 24 hours, Naruszewicz switched from the Finest to the Bravest. “They asked me if I would do it — transport the most severely injured people to the only hospital that still had space in Brooklyn. The crew and I agreed, but I asked for two priests to come on board in case they were needed — and they were needed.”

He took more than 500 photos. “A guy working on the dock gave me film to use every time I stopped to get more people. And I remember everything. Some of the crew completely blocked out the experience, but I remember it all as if it were yesterday.

“I tell people, never forget. Never forget the policemen and firefighters, all the first responders and the innocent people who lost their lives that day. And don’t forget the people who are still dying from breathing in that toxic cloud of dust.”

Naruszewicz says he too “has some health issues.” Today he’s captain of an oil tanker in New York Harbor, “refueling everything that needs diesel fuel.” He lives in New Jersey and hopes to come to Seattle to ride the Finest one more time.

Annette Wright was an editor and writer for women’s magazines in NYC for 25 years. You can contact her at wrightannette511@gmail.com.