Richard Thornton, a Coney Island native, was always captivated by the boats in the harbor as a child. After a successful career in the Navy, he began working as a captain with New York Waterways in 1990. The company regularly scheduled trans-Hudson crossings for commuters traveling between New Jersey, Midtown Manhattan, and the Financial District in lower Manhattan. The morning of September 11, 2001 began normally for Capt. Thornton and the three other crew members aboard the Henry Hudson, as they made their runs ferrying commuters across the river.
After docking at Midtown, Capt. Thornton noticed a plume of smoke coming from the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Some of his passengers, who had been listening to radio reports, informed him that a passenger jet had flown into the tower. Initially considering it a tragic accident, he recalled his experience on February 26, 1993. On that day a bomb was detonated in the parking garage below the North Tower and Thornton’s ferry, among several others, received orders to evacuate people from lower Manhattan.
For this reason, Capt. Thornton didn’t hesitate. He navigated the Henry Hudson towards lower Manhattan anticipating the need for another water evacuation. In a public program in 2023 at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, he recalled the moment saying, “We immediately just took off. We stole the boat...we didn’t tell anybody.” While on the Hudson River, the crew witnessed Flight 175 being flown into the South Tower. As his boat approached Lower Manhattan, and Capt. Thornton saw the magnitude of what had happened, he recalled feeling overwhelmed by the thought that some of the people he had ferried to work earlier were headed towards the World Trade Center.
When the Henry Hudson docked at Pier 11 near Wall Street, people swarmed onboard, filling it well beyond its 399-person capacity. He dropped off his first run of passengers in Hoboken, New Jersey and turned back. It was then that Capt. Thornton heard the radio call for "all available boats" to return to lower Manhattan to aid in the evacuation. That day he and his crew made 20 roundtrips from Weehawken to Manhattan taking people to safety.
While docking for the last time that evening around 6:00 p.m., they were met by local law enforcement waiting to decontaminate the boat and everyone onboard. Before disembarking, he noticed the American flag hanging off the back of his boat, covered in dust and frayed from the day’s events. Recognizing its historical importance but fearing it would be thrown away, he took it home. In October 2023, Capt. Thornton donated the flag to the 9/11 Memorial & Museum. “There’s no place I’d rather have been than behind the wheel of a ferry boat working on 9/11” he said.
This September, participants around the world can see Captain Richard Thornton share his story, in his own words, as a part of the 2024 Anniversary Digital Learning Experience program. Register for this free program today.
by Felicity Richards, Education Specialist