Capt. James Parese, S.I. Ferry
By all appearances, Captain James Parese's daily routine is the same today as it was 16 years ago, when he first took the helm of the Staten Island Ferry's trademark orange ships. On Mondays through Thursdays, he shuttles thousands of morning commuters between Staten Island and Lower Manhattan on the Andrew J. Barberi, one of the largest boats in the Staten Island Ferry fleet. With a hawk-like gaze that is second nature to the lifelong seaman, Parese constantly is on the lookout for jet skiers and small boats that sometimes dare to weave around the 3,000-plus ton vessel churning its way between the two boroughs.
But as routine as this picture seems, the conspicuous absence of the twin towers is a stark, daily reminder for Capt. Parese that he and the city have changed forever.
Capt. Parese was at the helm of the 6,000-passenger Newhouse on Sept. 11, which left Staten Island at 8:48 a.m. He saw flames leap from the north tower of the World Trade Center. Then he heard the roar of a jet and watched a plane fly overhead and plunge into the south tower.
"It all looked like a movie," he said. "You know what you saw, but you couldn't accept it."
Facts About the Staten Island Ferry
First service: 1905
No. of passengers: 19 million every year, 65,000 every day
No. of trips: 33,000 annually; 104 daily on weekdays, 64 daily on weekends
No. of boats in fleet: 7
Trip length: 5.2 miles
Travel time: 25 minutes
Reliability: The most reliable form of public transport, the ferry has an on-time performance of 96 percent
Source: New York City Department of Transportation
He made a quick decision. He called the Coast Guard and the St. George ferry terminal on Staten Island to say he was turning the boat back. Wary of being in open waters for long, he took a circuitous route past Governor's Island.
"I didn't want to be a target," he said. "The boat had thousands of people on it and there were more hijacked planes still in the air."
After unloading all passengers in Staten Island, Capt. Parese was ordered to turn around to help evacuate Lower Manhattan. He steered the empty boat back to Manhattan. Thousands ran to the ferry, many covered in ash and glass. When the boat was full, Capt. Parese began to leave the dock. But people still leaped on to the ferry. One man had to hoist himself up on the deck after nearly missing the departing boat.
Then, the first tower fell. The boat was engulfed by smoke.
"All the smoke and ash came in so thick that visibility was zero," Capt. Parese said. "We had to go on radar. We were covered in white ash and it burned our eyes."
Capt. Parese and his crew brought 6,000 panicked passengers to safety on that first trip. Then he received orders to turn around again to pick up more people and to bring doctors to Lower Manhattan. He spent the rest of the day picking up people and dropping off emergency medical supplies, waiting to transport the injured to hospitals.
"We made room to take casualties," he said. "But we only ever had one."
Capt. Parese worked long shifts for days afterwards, transporting rescue workers and their supplies. "You did what you had to do," he said. "Nobody complained, everybody just did their jobs."
In the year since the attacks, Capt. Parese said the support of his coworkers has been paramount. "We stuck together that day," he said. "And we talk to each other when we need to."
Capt. Parese received many thank you letters from people he helped get to safety that day. He also was honored for his work on Sept. 11 in a ceremony at South Street Seaport, in front his wife and two children.
"James is an all around good guy," said Port Captain Joe Ecock, the man who gave Capt. Parese the orders to return to Lower Manhattan on Sept. 11. "He was fearless. He could have decided to stay right here [in Staten Island] and not go back that day. But he just said 'no problem,' and kept on going."
One year later, Capt. Parese is still going. But he admits some days are harder than others.
"The police and the firefighters still come to work," he said. He set his eyes on the skyline. "You've got to go on."