Remembering 9/11, Nine Years Later – CDR Michael Day

Remembering 9/11

NEW YORK, New York (Sept. 11)--Coast Guard Petty officer Billy Bashaw, from Station Fire Island, bows his head in sorrow onboard his rescue boat Sept. 11. Bashaw has close friends who work in the World Trade Center who are still unaccounted for. USCG photo by PAC Tom Sperduto

CDR Michael Day

CDR Michael Day

As the nation reflects on the ninth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, we bring you the story of a Coast Guardsmen who helped organize one of the largest mass evacuations in U.S. history.

On September 11, 2001, Lieutenant Michael Day was working at Coast Guard Activities New York preparing to leave for a meeting at Tower One of the World Trade Center when the command center alert came in. A plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers. Then another hit.

“We were unable to get any reports from lower Manhattan since all the communications systems failed. It was chaotic. People from multiple agencies were responding to the scene without any unity of purpose,” he said. “There wasn’t a pre-planned response; there was no CONOP for how to respond to two planes crashing into the Towers.”

Not having a specific response plan for this situation, Day grabbed the closest thing he could think of to help – the OPSAIL 2000 plan.

“I knew it had a lot of ambulance staging areas. We had a lot of evacuation points identified. Although it wasn’t necessarily a full-scale evacuation plan, it had information,” he said.

Pilot boat NEW YORK

Pilot boat NEW YORK. Photo from Sandy Hook Pilots website.

As Day rushed out the door to head to the waterfront, Andrew McGovern, pilot of the 100-foot pilot boat NEW YORK, showed up for the meeting. They grabbed a bunch of extra lifejackets, the OPSAIL plan, a Coast Guard Ensign and headed for the pilot boat.

“I remember listening to the radio because by this time we were underway on the boat and it was just… chaos. Every channel you clicked to people were screaming, ‘Help, people are here… I’ve got someone hurt here’,” he said.

With a front row seat to the collapsing buildings, frightened people and distressing devastation, Day only momentarily worried about his own safety. With thousands of citizens needing help, he didn’t have time to stop and think about what was happening.

Despite poor radio communication and unreliable cellular reception, Day began dispatching Coast Guardsmen with handheld radios to the piers to help coordinate a more organized evacuation effort. Meanwhile, he hoisted the Coast Guard Ensign on the pilot boat and began broadcasting to all available boats willing to help with the evacuation to assemble off the tip of Governors Island and await further assignment.

9-11 EVACUATION

NEW YORK - New Yorkers rushed to the Lower Manhattan water front to try to escape the collapse of the World Trade Center towers September 11. They were later evacuated by ferries and tugboats from all over New York harbor. USCG photo by Chief Brandon Brewer

The process of transporting the crowds of people from Manhattan to safety, one boat load at a time, continued into the evening. With the pilot boat docked in lower Manhattan, still flying the Coast Guard Ensign, first responders began asking them for help.

Establishing communications with the New Jersey Office of Emergency Management, he was able to start getting some supplies brought over to the pier… first water, then ice and meals. Soon, more specific items like tools, equipment and fuel began to arrive.

“We were quickly overrun with relief supplies,” he said. “It was just such a ‘can do’ effort. Everyone wanted to help.”

In what he called, “hands-on VTS,” Day and a Chief Boatswain’s Mate managed the hundreds of vessels bringing supplies to the pier.

“We set up three different staging areas because the supplies were coming in so fast and furious that we were running out of room, and we couldn’t distribute them fast enough,” he added.

The pure scope of the event and lack of communication with his superiors meant making decisions wasn’t always easy for Day, nor were his actions always by the book, but he looks at the response as great example of initiative and teamwork. Getting more than one hundred boats and dozens of response crews to work together cohesively is not an easy task. But for Day, it just sort of happened under what he describes as a “common purpose.”

Responding to 9/11

NEW YORK - A Coast Guard rescue team from Sandy Hook, NJ, races to the scene of the World Trade Center terrorist attack. USCG photo by PA2 Tom Sperduto

Day also learned valuable leadership lessons.

“One is the value of partnering and partnerships, and building your bridges before you need them,” he said. “Two, making your people feel empowered. I really felt when I worked for Admiral Bennis that I was totally empowered to do the right thing. And three, to have faith in your people and the power of the concept of unity of purpose.”

After four days of responding with only about three hours of sleep total, Day finally had some time to reflect on what had happened.

“And it’s when I had quiet time, you know, a little bit alone to myself that it really, really struck home,” he said. “I think being in the Coast Guard we kind of shut things off at times of stress; it’s like a defense mechanism.”

Nine years later, Commander Day’s career and 9/11 experience have come full circle as a National Security Fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School.

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14 Responses

  1. Claudio Alpaca says:

    Remembering 9/11 is a momdial remembering day as we are alls part of the umanity and of the world.
    Any of us is part of the tragedy that are remembered.
    Americans, you are mot alone

  2. CDR Luis E. Martinez says:

    That was the day that transformed all our lives and led me to an emergency management career. Having worked for Mike Day and partnered with Andy McGovern for several years leading up to this fatal day I am in total agreeement that port partnerships are first and foremost in securing our nations ports and expeditious recovery from terrorist and natural events. Admiral Bennis was excellent at fostering these relationships and empowering us to do the same. On 9/11 I was, as routine, the Liaison to NYC OEM. Having forged these relationships throughout the years and working with many of them while planning OPSAIL 2000 was immensely helpful in getting the job done as fast as we did. Nine years later, my enemy is hurricanes and tropical storms down in Miami as the Chief of Contingency Preparedness & Exercises, however, the principles of leadership adn emergency management remain the same….build partnerships.

  3. Cheryl Lien-Fua says:

    I never knew about the Coast Guard’s involvement until I read this story. Thank you for sharing your story and your experience. The USCG came to relief of so many citizens in a time of great distress and performed admirably. I will take the valuable lesson of “building bridges before you need them”. 9/11 is a day never to forget. Sharing on this anniversary still provides valuable lessons for us all.

  4. CDR Bob Hendrickson says:

    Mike – Great words on leadership and the value of building partnerships before they’re needed. You hit the nails on their respective heads, classmate! OCS 3-91; Wimps need not apply.

  5. john says:

    Thanks for the kind words…
    The Coast Guard on-site were just doing the best they could. That’s what we were trained to do.

  6. Amanda says:

    The Coast Guard are the forgotten ones… Silently jumping to action to help, not expecting glory or credit… I’m proud of our Coast Guard and all the members in it! Amazing story, thank you, ALL of you for all you do, and I hope one day to be able to call myself one of you!

  7. Steven Bustin says:

    I personally know Commander Day and as a member of the USCG Auxiliary in San Rafael California, I had the honor of occasionally serving under him at the Pacific Strike Team. He is a humble hero, a man of great ethics and leadership and a true American hero. We salute you Commander.

  8. George Frederick says:

    God bless the USCG !

  9. Jared Crane says:

    BZ Mike! I’m proud to have worked for you onboard USCGC Seneca. Semper Paratus and Never Forget!

  10. LONNIESHA says:

    I THINK WAT HAPPEN WAS VERY SAD AND I THINK THAT THE COAST GUARD IS DOIN A EONDERFUL JOB

  11. Richard Celia says:

    I could not be more proud of this man nor have a better man to call friend and the USCG could not have a finer officer.

  12. Jim Nicholson says:

    Mike: Great article. I am proud to have been able to call you shipmate and friend.

  13. John Rogers, USCGAux says:

    Grabbing a USCG Ensign and a previously-used Operation Sail plan shows outstanding initiative! BZ Commander Day and ALL Hands!

    If there is one positive memory I will carry with me for the rest of my life, it will be of the USCG Cutter with the very large Battle Ensign flying proudly as the Cutter patrolled NY harbor in the days after the attacks.

    I am in awe of what you all did (and still do) for the nation every day. Thank you!

    John Rogers, USCGAux

  14. Bart Stavisky, USCGAux says:

    God Bless You, Cdr. Day and all of the Guardians who served our nation on that tragic day and every day, given acolades or not.
    I am honored to serve with you. We will never forget!

    Bart Stavisky, BC-IHM USCGAux