As our nation pauses this year to remember the tragic attacks of September 11, 2001, the acts of courage and compassion shown by so many Americans on that day still stir strong emotions. Of the many tales of heroism, the actions of the American maritime community, which responded so quickly to the call for help, might be the least well known. As we will never forget the bravery of our first responders, we should also never forget the maritime men and women who helped bring more than 500,000 people to safety in what became the largest sea evacuation in our nation’s history.

As panicked crowds rushed to find refuge from the area around the World Trade Center, many soon found themselves at the water’s edge, trapped on an island. After seeing huge groups of people gathering on the waterfront, the U.S. Coast Guard put out the call for all vessels in the area to help those who were stranded in lower Manhattan.

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The maritime community answered in force. Over the course of just nine hours, responding mariners ensured that on that day, no one was left behind, as they rescued more than 500,000 people from the island of Manhattan. The great Boatlift of 9/11 was larger than the sealift that followed the battle of Dunkirk during World War II, which took place over the course of nine days, during which more than 300,000 Allied soldiers were rescued. 

Long-standing maritime traditions of safety, commitment and courage guided the heroes of the September 11 Boatlift. Often, we take our American maritime industry for granted as it works in quiet anonymity to keep our country and our economy moving. But, for those who are familiar with this proud industry, these acts of heroism came as no surprise.

One of the most important roles for America’s domestic maritime fleet is assisting with sealifts during times of national emergency, which is exactly what happened in the most organic way on September 11. The Boatlift heroes that day truly lived up to the one of the U.S. Merchant Marine’s oldest mottos, “acta non verba,” which translates “deeds not words.”

In one day, our nation experienced the best and worst of the human condition. The attacks exposed Americans to the unthinkable, but the New York region’s maritime community courageously responded and revealed what makes our country great. Those who needed help on that tragic day will always be grateful to the maritime community for its commitment to their safety. In times of need and in times of peace, our vibrant domestic maritime industry will continue to proudly serve our great nation.

Allegretti is chairman of the American Maritime Partnership.