‘I just turned my ferry boat around’: A captain shares lessons from 9/11 with Morris Plains crowd

World Trade Center steel is centerpiece of 2021 9/11 ceremony in Morris Plains. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Under blue skies on a Tuesday morning in 2001, Navy veteran Richard Thornton was enjoying what he considered the perfect job: Transporting people to and from Manhattan as a ferry boat captain.

Then came the “very abnormal” whine of the first jetliner, flying “very, very low” across the ferries.

When it hit the World Trade Center, he thought, like everyone else, that it was a horrible accident. When the second hijacked plane crashed into the other tower moments later, Thornton’s leisurely dream gig became an all-hands-on-deck rescue mission.

“Without thinking, I just turned my ferry boat around… we knew we had to get everybody out of the city,” Thornton said Friday, on the eve of the 20th anniversary of 9/11, at a ceremony in Morris Plains.

Video: ‘I just turned my ferry boat around’:

Somber poems were recited by ministers and grade-schoolers, patriotic songs were sung, and salutes were made to a flag rippling at half-mast.

Morris Plains lost Eileen Marsha Greenstein, 52, on 9/11. Greenstein worked in the claims department at Aon in the World Trade Center; she was among nine Greater Morristown residents and 64 from Morris County who perished that day.

Addressing dozens of schoolchildren, residents, veterans and police, in the shadow of a charred Trade Center beam that is the centerpiece of the borough’s 9/11 memorial park, Thornton relived harrowing moments, on a bright, breezy morning much like Sept. 11, 2001.

Slideshow photos by Kevin Coughlin. Click/hover on image for captions:

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The terror attacks, he said, epitomized humanity at its worst — mass murderers–and at its best, proving how “ordinary people…can do extraordinary things.”

Thornton, who appeared in the History Channel documentary Fifteen Septembers Later, and in the Tom Hanks-narrated Boatlift, estimates his ferry made 20 trips on 9/11, rescuing 8,000 people from lower Manhattan.

A flotilla of tugboats, fishing boats, sailboats and yachts headed there, too, as the Coast Guard issued an urgent call for “all available boats!”

Many people dashed to the Hudson River and, trapped, jumped in, risking drowning to escape the chaos around Ground Zero. Thornton’s crew lowered a rescue ladder and started hauling them onto the ferry.

Thornton recounted four men in business suits, hoisting a blind woman “like a surfboard” over a railing, along with her guide dog, onto the ferry. On one trip, he gave water and kudos to a shaken, ash-covered Rudy Giuliani, mayor of New York at the time.

“We weren’t superheroes, we weren’t trained first responders…we were just professional mariners that chose the sea as our job, our career. We were just doing the best we could in a constantly changing, chaotic moment,” said Thornton, a Brooklyn native who at age 55 still plies the Hudson for New York Waterways.

Greater Morristown victims on 9/11:


Eileen Marsha Greenstein


Martin Paul Michelstein
Richard C. Rescorla


Sean Patrick Lynch
Alfred Russell Maler
William A. Mathesen
Alexander Napier Jr.
Barbara A. Shaw
Edward W. Straub

He saw horrors on 9/11. Yet it was the proudest day of his life, he said, because of the other things he witnessed.

“There were no Democrats or Republicans. There were no Yankee fans or Met fans. There were no Black, white, red, yellow. It was just people helping people,” he said.

“Nobody wanted money. Nobody wanted fame. Nobody wanted credits. Nobody wanted a medal. They were risking their lives for complete and total strangers. They did do because of their basic human need to help people in distress,” Thornton said.

Echoing that theme, Mayor Jason Karr issued a challenge for these polarized times.

“The lesson learned that day was to be kind, and love one another. This is the true meaning of ‘Never Forget.’ What matters most is what unites us, not what divides us,” Karr said.

“I encourage everyone to perform an act of kindness today, and over the next year, to keep our country strong.”


Video: ‘The True Meaning of ‘Never Forget’: A Challenge:

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  1. These heroes reminded us that the love and kindness shown at that time was without regard for political views or other differences. If we applied those same principles today, how much better off our world would be.