Zibby hosts a special podcast in honor of the 20th anniversary of the attacks on September 11th, 2001 with author, mariner, historian, and journalist Jessica DuLong. Jessica’s latest book, Saved at the Seawall, tells the story of the boat lift in the New York City harbor on 9/11 and beyond. Jessica shares what drove her to take action and assist on the water, as well as the individual narratives of so many others who put humanity first to help those in need in the immediate aftermath of the crashes. Jessica and Zibby also discuss their own grieving journeys and how we can apply the lessons learned back then to our divided world today.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jessica. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Saved at the Seawall: Stories from the September 11 Boat Lift.

Jessica DuLong: Thank you so much for having me. It’s such an honor.

Zibby: I know we’re recording this ahead of time, but this will be airing on the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, which is such an emotional day for so many people and for the country and everything else. Thank you for being the voice and bringing the stories to us from that time so that people can adequately mourn and connect to the day through this conversation.

Jessica: Yes, thank you.

Zibby: This book, I did not know — I feel like I’ve learned a lot about 9/11. I lost my best friend that day. I’ve spent a lot of time watching footage. I’ve been down that rabbit hole many times. Yet I had not learned the things that you described. I didn’t even realize this whole scope of the rescue. I’d always wondered what had gone on down there that day in this detail. I am so grateful for this story and for the answers to some of the questions I had. I just wanted to say personally, thank you for all of your reporting and the amazing stories you wove in here and detail and facts and everything. I’m just personally super grateful.

Jessica: That really means the world to me. It’s so interesting to live in a city that’s a port city, that grew up around its port. So little information so many of us have about what’s going on in the water. You’re not alone. So many people are hearing about this for the first time every time something new comes out. It’s just tremendously remarkable history. I’m so, so honored to be able to share it with the world in this way. I’m so sorry to hear about your friend.

Zibby: Thank you. Tell listeners a little about this point of view, why you’re such an expert in this arena, and the story in general of the seaport and what made it so critical that day maybe for people who don’t live in New York City or whatever.

Jessica: Even if you lived in New York City, very often, people forget that Manhattan is an island. The fact that Manhattan is an island played such a huge role in the outcomes for so many individuals that day. A piece of the history that ends up being really relevant throughout the story and really had critical, life-or-death impacts on people is that this was a port city. New York City grew around its waterways. We used to have, along the western shore of Manhattan, all these finger piers that were stretched along the seawall that pointed out. It created seventy-six miles of usable frontage. That’s now basically vanished at this point. So much of that had already been dismantled on September 11th in 2001. The lack of facilities for large boats to be able to load passengers safely, to be able to tie up along the seawall to provide firefighting water, all of that has really played a huge role in what happened that day. The fact that the boat lift was so tremendously successful, which it was, was in spite of many of the obstacles, infrastructure-wise. I think that’s important for people to realize. For me, I came to this book and this story very reluctantly, to be perfectly honest. I had served at Ground Zero as a marine engineer working aboard fireboat John J. Harvey, which is a retired 1931 New York City fireboat. That was called out of retirement back into service to pump water.

Fireboat John J. Harvey was called back into service to pump water at Ground Zero because when the towers collapsed, all the hydrants were buried and the water mains broke, which meant that the only firefighting water that was available for days after the attacks was provided by fireboat, active duty and retired fireboat John J. Harvey. It was river water. There is this amazing story that — the person responsible for calling John J. Harvey back into service is a friend of mine, Tommy White. He was then lieutenant, since retired FDNY captain. He actually is the one who put out the call and said, “Hey, Harvey, can you pump? Come back. Drop off those passengers and come back.” He told me this story about firefighters doing a typical — it was so debris and dust clouded. Firefighters are trying to use the water from the hose lines to wash their faces. They didn’t expect that it was going to be salt water from the river. That incongruence is just really interesting to think about. That’s how I came to this story. That’s the reluctance that I brought to the story, which was basically that I have my own psychological fallout from service at Ground Zero. I was very reluctant to immerse myself in the stories that needed to be told. What eventually overshadowed that was that I realized that I had a responsibility as a mariner, as a writer, a journalist, and someone who could speak both languages, boat and layperson, to collect this history because ten years had gone by, and no one had collected it. I felt a responsibility to bear witness and to do my very best to get the story out there. It has been a very, very long slog. Two decades in this material is too long. I’m really hoping that this is the anniversary when I can start to let some of it go.

Zibby: Now I’m sorry I’m making you talk about it again, but I know it’s very much on your mind right now. This new narrative about such a worldwide phenomenon, it’s such an interesting way to sail into it, if you will, for this time. Can you tell me a little more about your own experience? You don’t have to go into the nitty-gritty of all of it. You bring in so many different individual stories. You make it chronological through the day. Here’s what this person was doing. Here’s what’s happening on this boat. Here’s this guy turning around on I-95. Here’s this nanny in a townhouse holding her baby running. We see it through all these different point of views around the city, in, on the water, and all around. Bring in your own experience now to it for that day and maybe the next day and when you got involved yourself.

Jessica: I got involved myself at Ground Zero on the 12th. What had happened was I was very brand-new as an engineer. I had only been doing this job for six months. I didn’t have the same inclination that most mariners had, which was connecting the dots immediately that they had a unique skill set and unique equipment that could be called into service that day. In fact, I was actually informed by this now-apocryphal story that the new purchasers of the fireboat, which was purchased at a scrap auction, none of these folks were firefighters. There subsequently were many volunteer firefighters or firefighters who worked in other areas with the exception of our beloved pilot who’s no longer with us, Bob Lenny, who had served aboard the boat as its pilot for many, many, many years. Then she retired and he retired. Then they came back together in their retirement. What this all means to say is that we had no business being at a fire. We were informed very clearly just right before this happened — somebody made a passing joke about, “Hey, if you ever need our help…” kind of thing. FDNY was just like, “To be clear, you are not to be anywhere near anything like this.”

What that meant was I was trapped in Brooklyn. I was wandering around trying to donate blood, looking at people building stretchers and wanting to help with that, and stuck on the wrong side of the island. The next morning when I finally reached one of my crew members on the boat, I said, “Where are you?” He said, “Where do you think we are?” I said, “How do I get there?” Pilot Bob Lenny had also arrived on the 12th. He had just come over via the Brooklyn Navy Yard. That’s the FDNY Marine Division headquarters. I was able to catch a boat and head over and be there. I’ll never forget the experience of rounding the tip of Manhattan. As you probably recall, the way that the wind was blowing for some days was straight towards Brooklyn. Just the visual of that column of smoke rising up and coming around the tip of Manhattan and wearing this PFD, this lifejacket that was adjusted for somebody much bigger than me — I’m 5’5″ and did not take up that much space. This thing is just flapping in the breeze. I felt like it was such an apt metaphor for how I felt, which was just completely ill-equipped and not big enough for this, not big enough, and just knowing that everything was going to change immediately. There was no going back. Then being there, there was no place in the world I wanted to be more. It was such an honor to be able to be there and to help do this job of pump water. It took its toll as well.

Zibby: How have you coped with that? What have you done that’s helped?

Jessica: All kinds of things that have helped and not helped. I wish I had better answers. In fact, I think that’s part of why, as a journalist, I write all of these stories about grief and trauma. As a book collaborator, I help lots of people with memoirs and other books that have to deal with trauma. I’ve decided that in my next life, I’m going to be a neuroscientist because I find that really, really fascinating. There’s definitely not time in this life. I try to learn as much as I can about how this actually works. I’m really interested in remembering, reminding myself, and sharing more with the world about the fact that these are physiological responses. It’s not like someone is choosing to have PTSD. It’s not a weakness. It’s literally something that lodges in your body. Then it’s about management. How do you manage it? I think there are a lot of good options out there. As I’m writing about it a lot for, people can actually go to my website and find tools that I try to say that I’m using. They’re out there. Hopefully, others will be better than I am at actually putting them into play. Honestly, mindfulness practice is hugely, hugely, hugely helpful for me.

Zibby: I feel like mindfulness, to me, means just refusing to think much past the moment. I don’t know if that’s even really what it is.

Jessica: I think it counts.

Zibby: Keep looking down. I start to worry. I’m like, I can’t go there. I have to stay here. I’m going to keep looking down and get through this day and get through what I have to do next and not what might happen in the next five years or six months or whatever else.

Jessica: That’s really valid. In fact, one of the very core — it’s almost throughout any modality of treatment. One of the very first steps when you’re spiraling into some kind of trauma or worry or panic or anxiety is to feel your feet on the ground. That’s a very grounded approach. You’re spot-on. You’re doing great.

Zibby: Thanks. That was not my experience during that time of 9/11. I was at business school. I had just left. I had lived with my friend Stacey on and off for seven years. She was in the North Tower right on the 93rd floor, so I like to believe that she was there and didn’t know what happened, but I actually have no idea. This medium I spoke to once said that that wasn’t the case and that actually, she was with a colleague on a staircase. I don’t know what to believe. They had said, don’t travel, or all that stuff. I was in Boston waiting for everything, watching on the news, and talking to all our friends back home. I went to class the next morning. The teacher said, “If anybody needs to leave, we understand.” I was like, “I have to get out of here. I can’t do this.” I got in my car. I was the only one on 95 driving from — or whatever the roads — from Boston all the way. I stopped at my friend Stacey’s family’s home and saw her parents. Then I was like, I’m going to try to find her. Remember, everybody was trying to find everybody. I was still sure she was wandering around with amnesia or something like in a movie. I remember just how eerie it was driving, nobody on any of the roads and hoping that I would be allowed in the city and driving down to Lower Manhattan and getting stopped everywhere and passing tanks and just craziness. I remember that September 12th in the city very well and all the days after and just the loss. I feel like at the time, I coped mostly by crying and eating and not-good stuff.

Jessica: Crying is good.

Zibby: Crying is good. Eating, you know, whatever. For me, it changed my entire life. I feel like it has for you. The work that you have done on this is monumental, truly. You are a historian. You deserve some sort of prize. I don’t know what those prizes are, necessarily. This reporting is really amazing. I feel like this should be on everybody’s shelf. This is serious reporting here. Oh, my gosh, it’s like the Shoah of 9/11, essentially, this collection of stories. I’m rambling. Anyway, I just found that personally, for the city, for the country, as a New Yorker, as everything, I have lived my life completely differently as a result of this. Sometimes I wonder the sliding doors of it all, what would’ve happened to everybody, not just me.

Jessica: I’m right there with you. Definitely, there was a turning point where, as you say, the sliding doors. There are doors that just closed and doors that opened that would not have happened otherwise. I’m not a policy wonk. I don’t have that depth of knowledge. It’s really interesting to me to see the analysis by people who are really informed about that and just to see all of the changes that have happened. I’m thinking global political scale. Somebody tweeted who I think was really young when it happened. It’s something that really stayed with me. I probably should’ve saved it so I could call it back again. It was something to the extent of — I think she was three on that day. She said, “It never occurred to me about the shoes at the airport, that any of this was new.” Talk about doors that closed. All of the freedoms that we took for granted in this country, those doors just closed. It was on a temporary basis. They never reopened. There are so many reasons why this history is important. I could rattle on and on and on. One of them is just so that we have the power of hindsight to see where things began. How did this trajectory take place? How did it happen? Really, it’s important to me to mention that one of the most-crystalized, powerful pieces of this, of spending this time with this material and all of this reporting and crying with my sources as they walked through their most harrowing days over and over again is, first off, gratitude that they shared their stories with me. Some of them told the story in its entirety for the first time when we were having these conversations. They did so, I think, out of that same obligation that I felt, which is feeling the need to bear witness to history and to make sure that this history isn’t forgotten, and particularly at this time in our country where there’s such a powerful reckoning that’s happening.

We are reevaluating and drawing new attention and having new lenses on old history that we’ve been taught over and over again. There is such brutality at the heart of the founding of our nation. That is absolutely true. This is a piece of our heritage that we also have. We need to keep that in mind. What you have is you have more than eight hundred mariners all spontaneously rising up to say, okay, people need help. There are people we’ll stack ten deep along the seawalls of Manhattan. Depending on which moment it was in time, they’re dust-covered. They’re injured, burned, clothing melted onto their bodies, just horrific situations. These mariners went, got people onto their boats in ways that are not standard at all, people climbing fendering, ladders that were horizontal because that’s the way they could bridge the gap, all of these details that I recount. The thing that is just so overwhelming — every time I think about it, it’s just moving all over again even though I’ve had to consciously numb myself out to do this work. When I picture that these mariners went over, loading their boats up, overloaded beyond coast guard regulations, bringing on injured people, triaging them, giving them first aid, whatever they needed to do, whatever they could do, giving them water to get the debris out of their eyes — they bring them to safer shores in New Jersey, Brooklyn, Staten Island, any place that people needed to go. Then they disembarked passengers at unfamiliar docking facilities with subpar equipment, not what they needed for a normal operation. They turned around, and they looked at the island on fire. It was on fire for months after this.

They went back over and over and over again. They went back. Everybody else was running away. They said, we have this incredible opportunity to help. We can do something that no one else can do. There is just tremendous honor in that choice. Where I’ve landed after twenty years — I just wrote a piece about it for The Daily Beast. We got stuck in these narratives of heroism. There are the heroes. We should applaud them. Then there’s all the rest of us. That is so dangerous and so not the whole story. Actually, these were just civilians. They were mariners. They had boats. They had training to be able to run a boat. There was serious professionalism. They had first aid training. That was really helpful. They were just people. What we know over and over again throughout history, the first, first responders at a disaster are civilians. Rebecca Solnit wrote this beautiful book about it, Paradise Built in Hell. Over and over again, people use whatever they have at their disposal, the simplest skill sets that they have, and they help each other. We lose track of that reality because so much of the news we consume is about division, divisiveness, the wrongs that we do to each other. It’s so important to me, especially now in the middle of a pandemic, that we remember that this is actually who we are as well. We can be this. All of us has the capacity to choose kindness, to choose compassion, to make a small choice. Usually, you don’t have to be on a boat gunning straight for the island on fire. There are small things we can do. That’s the thing that gets me all these years later. We need this. We need to start coming together.

Zibby: It’s so emotional. How are you going to talk about this day after day? This is so intense. You’re so right about everything. It’s inspiring and upsetting and all of it all mixed together. You’re right. There are so many little things that aren’t so little, telling a man who’s laying down to get up. Just get up. Keep walking. Ripping the T-shirt when the person was making masks and the people helping the girl with the scratched corneas and all these little things, the firemen who landed on top of each other, oh, my gosh, it was just a series of goodness-es, kindnesses that people didn’t even think twice about. They did it instinctively without a second thought. That’s the magic of it, really.

Jessica: You nailed it. It’s magic. It’s also utterly human. We have this image of when the plane’s going down — not this particular plane. A plane’s going down or you hit a bad patch of turbulence. You reach out to the hand of the stranger next to you. Why do you do that? In that moment, who they voted for, where they live, what their politics are, these arbitrary ways that we have decided to categorize each other, none of that matters. What you see in that other person is their humanity. That’s what the mariners saw. It was just about shared humanity. There’s this really powerful moment for me that keeps coming back. I was speaking with the New York Waterways captain, Michael McPhillips, who had run off to sea at age sixteen. He was a mariner. He had it in his blood. Despite the health complications that he had as a result of his service at Ground Zero that meant the end of his maritime career, he still says that he was lucky to have had the opportunity to serve in that way. He also says, “We didn’t have a choice.” Then he stopped himself. He said, “Well, I guess we did have a choice, but it was a non-issue.” There was no pause. There was no hesitation.

If there was a hesitation — for example, Rich Varela, who you mentioned who put those handkerchiefs that he made, masks that he made out of his own T-shirt and handed them out to people, when he was headed back from safety — he lived in New Jersey. He heads back. He could just go home. He looks at the second tower coming down. He looks at the faces of the firefighters who have just watched that happen. He sees that they need help. He says, I’m going back. He goes back. In that moment where he’s crossing, he says, I might die today. He’s like, this is what I need to do. Again, this is hero stuff. I feel like more often than not, talk about mindfulness, the more we recognize our own shared humanity, we make these choices over and over again. It’s when we get stuck in our small stories, our limited versions of ourselves that we get stuck in these divisions. Talk about moments to realize our interconnectedness. We have a global pandemic. We have a climate crisis that is unprecedented. We are in a crux point right now. There are all these doors closing behind us. We have to come together. There’s no choice. There is no other choice. We are completely interdependent. Our safety is absolutely contingent upon your safety, is contingent upon your safety. There’s no getting around that. I’m praying that this is the moment. This is the moment.

Zibby: Wow. Jessica, thank you.

Jessica: Light conversation.

Zibby: I mean it. I am grateful for the service, again, not just that you showed up when you didn’t have to, it wasn’t even a choice, you just did it, but that you’re continuing to do it now, getting these stories out there, telling the story of the day, having us all live through some of the minor moments that make up history. I just found this to be the most powerful read. It didn’t even feel like a book. It was an immersion into the darkness that was even under the cloud. I love books that make me feel. This just didn’t even feel like a book. It was so true to life. Obviously, it was true. I was overwhelmed. On 9/11, which is being aired today, and all of my own emotions and everybody else’s emotions, I feel grateful to have had you take me for this ride down the path to this anniversary and everything.

Jessica: Thank you for willingness. I think it’s a hard ask to ask people to return to these really, really difficult moments, but I think it’s so instructive, especially now twenty years out. If we can’t do it twenty years out and take the goodness, extract the goodness and the meaning-making that is absolutely crucial to trauma survival and healing — I thank you for your willingness because it’s heavy lifting. Thank you.

Zibby: It’s important. We all carry it anyway.

Jessica: It’s true.

Zibby: I will be thinking of you on Saturday and all of the characters in the book and what they’re going through and all of it in addition to my own experience. Thank you.

Jessica: You too. As my hippie parents taught me, let’s just send out the good vibes.

Zibby: Sending out good vibes. Staying where our feet are. Buh-bye.

Jessica: Thank you.



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