Saved by the Boats: The Heroic Sea Evacuation of September 11

Save by the Boats Cover illustration

Written by Julie Gassman and illustrated by Stephen Eric Thomas (Under the pseudonym Steven Moors), Saved by the Boats tells the rarely told story of the sea evacuation of September 11. Nearly 500,000 people on Manhattan Island were rescued that day in what would later be called the largest sea evacuation in history. It’s a story of courage and heroism—one that shows that even in our darkest hours, people shine brightly as a beacon of hope. We sat down with Nathan Gassman, Creative Director of Capstone Publishing, Publisher of Saved by the Boats Publisher, and Stephen Eric Thomas, Illustrator of Saved by the Boats, to discuss the creative journey, from inception to execution, of this incredible project.

Plane heading for tower two illustration - Boats arriving in the harbor illustration
Plane heading for tower two illustration - Boats arriving in the harbor illustration

Q: What sparked the idea to create “Saved by the Boats”?

Nathan: Both Stephen and I were in NYC on 9/11. That later led to reflections of how we remembered the day unfolding—how people’s movements and expressions changed from those first moments and early hours to multiple hours later when so much loss was felt, but still so much was unknown too. Stephen was an avid collaborator in those discussions. He fueled more questions and discussions about the rhythm of the storytelling with constant consideration of what would be interesting to a young reader as well as visually sincere in depicting the scenes.

Tower falls illustration - Smoke bellowing from towers illustration
Tower falls illustration - Smoke bellowing from towers illustration

Q: What drew each of you together for this project?

Nathan: Well, our ultimate goal was to inform young readers of the historical significance of these events while highlighting the bravery of the hundreds of sea captains and crewmates. I immediately thought of Stephen’s portrait work and was drawn to both the realism and life he brought to his subjects in such a contemporary way. I had a strong sense that his exciting line work would illustrate the dynamic city and residents of New York City well.

Stephen: As Nathan mentioned, being in NYC on 9/11 was something that immediately connected us—we felt this was a story that needed to be told. I wanted to bring attention to the pivotal role that the boat rescue, and their brave crews, played in saving lives. Also, to do justice to the enormity of the tragedy, without freaking out the young demographic we were aiming for.

Rescue boat illustration
Rescue boat illustration

Q: Nathan, what were some of the thoughts that fueled the direction of the design? And Stephen, what was your approach to that direction?

Nathan: We came to Stephen with the concept that the blue of the sky would play a fundamental role in the art direction of this book. The blue of the sky was noted multiple times by eyewitnesses in the aftermath and was used as the basis for the only piece of conceptual art, Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning, that hangs in the September 11 Memorial Museum.

Stephen: I agreed with Nathan that the striking blue of the sky of that day on 9/11 should be significant in the book. It was a way to use color in a meaningful way without it being a ‘colorful’ book. Which is evident in the final product.

Remembering where teh towers stood illustration
Remembering where teh towers stood illustration

Q: Speaking of the final product, what did you think of the result?

Nathan: I already knew that Stephen was able to accomplish a lot with a limited palette when I reached out to him about the project. However, he surpassed my expectations with how he made the illustrations almost reach toward that blue sky in his depictions. It’s truly amazing.

Stephen: I’m happy that Nathan is happy—glad to have been part of the solution.