Actions, Not Words: Merchant Mariners Share 9/11 Stories

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Merchant Mariners at Kings Point could see smoke from the World Trade Center on campus. (Photo courtesy of United States Merchant Marine Academy)

In the 18 years since September 11th, 2001, most tales of tragedy, and the responses of everyday Americans to that fateful day, have been told again and again.

But Christopher McEliece never told his story. He kept silent for nearly two decades, even around his family. It was too painful a wound to reopen.

McEliece was a fourth-year midshipman at Kings Point’s United States Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) in 2001, working as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) on campus. The school sits on the western edge of the Great Neck peninsula; on a clear day, students can see the Manhattan skyline.

September 11th was a very clear day. McEliece was walking between classes when he got a sight of the billowing smoke cloud that surrounded what would come to be known as Ground Zero.

“Just as I was leaving our barracks to walk to the classrooms we got a good view of downtown and saw the big cloud of smoke,” McEliece said. “We turned around and ran back to the barracks and turned on the TV just a few minutes before the second plane hit, so we watched that live.”

Classes at the academy were cancelled soon after the news of the attacks broke containment. The instructors, still in shock themselves, began corralling the midshipmen and calling for volunteers. But the process was slow, so McEliece and his roommate Jeremy Warren decided to take matters into their own hands, grabbing a boat and heading to Manhattan with about a dozen others.

“We hadn’t really gotten authorization from anybody to go do this,” McEliece said of the ad-hoc relief operation. “But the motto of Kings Point is ‘actions, not words,’ so this was us living that motto. We didn’t know what we were doing, but dammit, we were going to do it.”

Most of the day is a blur to McEliece, one he tried to block out for years after the fact. But he remembered landing near the Army’s staging area and making his way to Ground Zero. The scene he saw on Wall Street stuck with him.

“I remember walking past the Stock Exchange and all the dust that was on the ground and falling,” he said. “There were papers and people’s shoes all over the street and briefcases. It was just the weirdest thing.”

When he reached Ground Zero just after 7 World Trade Center collapsed, with nothing but EMT gear and a T-shirt tied around his face to try to block out the dust, McEliece remembered feeling a crushing sense of helplessness.

“That was the point where we realized we were pretty useless,” he said. “Maybe useless isn’t the right word, but we weren’t going to be able to help. It felt like all the firefighters and other paramedics and EMTs standing around us were feeling the same way.”

Those students who fought through turned out to be far from useless. McEliece and his fellows decided to take the saline packs they brought with them and use them to wash the dust from people’s eyes. Later, McEliece and Warren decided to trek up a damaged office building to bring down couches and seats for weary police officers and firefighters. They both froze when they were high enough to see down to the remnants of one of the collapsed towers.

A portion of the collapsed World Trade Center, seen from above. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Photographer’s Mate Eric J. Tilford.)

“I clearly remember walking into a corner office and just looking straight down into the pit of one of the towers,” McEliece said. “That was like looking straight into Hell. We both stopped and just stared at that for a while.”

The trauma of that day affected McEliece for years, and it was only after going through therapy that he began to deal with the repercussions of what he had seen all those years ago. Still, even with all this time to think about it, McEliece has no regrets.

Not many people know the vital role the USMMA played in the aftermath of the worst attack on American soil. Midshipmen took to the seas alongside the Coast Guard to help evacuate people from Manhattan and bring them to safety. In total, half a million people were eventually ferried off the island by boat after the attacks, making that sea evacuation the largest in human history.

The academy would remain crucial to response efforts in the coming weeks, serving as a staging area and rest point for first responders who needed food or a place to rest after sifting through tons of rubble day after day. With bridges and tunnels shut down across the city, water transportation became crucial for ferrying first responders from Brooklyn and Queens back to Ground Zero.

Seal of the United States Merchant Marine Academy

Academy alumni made an impact far away from Kings Point in the aftermath of 9-11 as well.

Brian Tague was a just-graduated merchant marine assigned to a ship off of Guam 2001. When word came that America was under attack, the ship mobilized to the Persian Gulf. Tague would serve for the better part of six years in that theater.

“The next six years of my life I spent as a merchant marine supporting the Navy in theater for four of those years, resupplying ships with oil, food and ammunition” Tague said. “While the Navy gets there and spends their six, seven months there and go home to their families, we stay on site for years.”

Class of 1971 graduate Barry Farnsworth was working as the director of Information Services for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in 2001. Farnsworth recalled his colleagues and him being inundated with calls for information from agencies across the country day and night for years. His training from Kings Point came in handy.

“The next three years after that day is just a blur,” Farnsworth said. “Being able to get through that has a lot to do with people’s personality and how they handle stress, but I would say certainly that anybody who goes to a federal academy like Kings Point learns some discipline and how to deal with stress.”

In one way or another, each of these merchant mariners stayed true to the “Actions, Not Words” motto they learned at Kings Point, even though separated by years of age and thousands of miles. Whatever the world may remember, their fellows at the academy, and the people they managed to help, will never forget.

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