Evacuation from Manhattan
By Keith Kelly, Contributor
April / May 2002
Ron McComiskey has been a captain on private vessels around New York Harbor for 20 years and when the World Trade Center erupted on September 11 he knew where to go — straight to the scene to rescue victims.
By his estimate, he made about 12 trips that fateful day, transporting about 100 to 150 people from South Street Seaport in Manhattan through the smoke and debris to the safety of the Fulton Landing in Brooklyn on the 28-foot work skiff that he was skippering.
While many other skippers were dropping people in New Jersey, McComiskey took them through the smoke and debris to Brooklyn.
Ironically, it was the reverse of an evacuation route last used by George Washington in 1776 when he was fleeing the British in Brooklyn and heading across the East River to Manhattan.
“I could not believe it when I looked up and saw the stone marking the exact spot,” said McComiskey. The only problem with his heroic efforts was that his bosses at Phoenix Marine in Keyport, N.J. did not want him to go anywhere near the disaster, he claims. They fired him a week later for actions that would have earned him commendations in most other quarters.
According to McComiskey, a Phoenix Marine manager branded him a “cowboy.” “Good luck finding another job, hero,” the manager is said to have remarked as he handed a final pay package to McComiskey.
Phoenix Marine owner John Keeley denies that the comments were made and says that the reason McComiskey was fired was a “personality clash” with a vice president — not for McComiskey’s role in the rescue. “I like Captain Ron but he is an odd duck and way off base on this. He was doing a marginal job,” insisted Keeley.
That’s news to McComiskey, who said he routinely worked 70-hour weeks for the firm. “I never once had a problem with these guys. I never missed a day. I was never even late once in two years.”
McComiskey, who traces his Irish roots back to famine-era immigrants, said he felt he had little choice but to respond on September 11, regardless of the consequences.
“I knew it was a national disaster and I knew that with the bridges and tunnels closed the Coast Guard did not have enough boats available.”
And the captain, who is licensed to handle commercial vessels up to 100 tons, says he felt he was answering to the higher laws of the sea when he made his decision to go to the tempest-tossed waters near Ground Zero.
“I know it is illegal not to help a boat in distress, and the city was waving its arms in distress that day,” said McComiskey.
His wife, Helen Kurckzko McComiskey, is outraged and wrote to then mayor Giuliani for help.
“Mr. Giuliani, my husband is not a hero,” she said. “He has always considered himself a company man, but he is an American first.” Deborah Norville, host of the syndicated television show Inside Edition, aired some exclusive footage nationally of McComiskey’s plight on September 26 and interviewed some of the people who saw him in action.
“I could see the towers burning from Jamaica Bay,” said McComiskey, who ironically was working on a municipal sea repair project for the Transit Authority when the jets-turned-guided-missiles crashed into the Twin Towers.
That only makes him more irked by his bosses’ behavior. McComiskey believes that the owners of a boat that was undertaking work for the city should have rushed to help during a crisis — instead of trying to squelch his efforts.
“The city needed their help — and they went the other way,” said McComiskey.
But he is not bitter about his experience and says he’d gladly disobey orders to help out again.
Two weeks after the disaster and a week after the sacking, McComiskey said he was looking for another job and was determined to get it.
“I’m starting the application process for a job on the Staten Island Ferry,” he said. ♦