In Memoriam


In Memory of

Ernesto L. Butcher

Born August 9, 1944 - Retired April 13, 2012 - Died May 15, 2014

Ernesto Leonardo Butcher

Ernesto Butcher, Port Authority official who oversaw 9/11 response, dies
May 16, 2014

Ernesto Butcher, who ran the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, died Thursday in Maplewood.   He was 69.

At the time of the attacks, Butcher was chief operating officer of the bi-state agency that owned the Twin Towers, having worked his way up through the aviation, PATH, commerce, and bridges and tunnels divisions.
The agency lost 84 employees that day, including its executive director.

Butcher and others established a new command post at Journal Square in Jersey City. During the next hours and days, they had to safeguard the region’s bridges, tunnels, airports and ports, aid in the Ground Zero rescue effort, find new offices, and provide support to the grieving families of their lost co-workers.
“Ernesto was the glue that held people together,” said Rick Larrabee, director of port commerce for the Port Authority. He and Butcher both evacuated their offices in 1 World Trade Center and were conferring in the lobby of the Marriott hotel when the collapse of the other tower separated them, Larrabee said.

Neither was injured, in part because their section of the hotel had been strengthened after the 1993 bombing in the World Trade Center parking garage.

“He’d grown up with the agency,” Larrabee said. “So he had a total and independent knowledge of the agency, and what made it work. It was really Ernesto’s leadership that got us through those first couple of weeks.”
In a resolution passed by the PANYNJ commission at his retirement two years ago, the agency said that in the aftermath of the terrorist attack, Butcher “was a beacon of hope and courage through his steadying presence and calm demeanor, providing leadership and guidance in the efforts to recover and rebuild, providing comfort for the survivors, and becoming in the eyes of staff a transcendent force, rising above the tragedy and chaos of that terrible day.”

Butcher was born in Panama, moving to the United States when he was 16, said his wife, Kristen Peck Butcher. After graduation from Hunter College, he joined the Peace Corps and spent two years in Korea. After getting a masters degree, he went to work as a management trainee for the Port Authority, and spent his whole career there.

Earlier in his career, he was responsible for implementing exact-toll lanes at the George Washington Bridge, transforming the Port Authority Bus Terminal, which included a homeless outreach program, and overseeing a safety program for the Tunnels, Bridges and Terminals department.

A fitness buff who studied tai chi, Butcher collapsed while on his daily walk, according to his wife.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by a daughter, Mijha Godfrey, of Atlanta; four stepchildren, Hannah Goldman, Eliot Goldman, Claire Goldman, and Chisa Hutchinson; a sister, Aldigh Butcher, and a brother, Bobby Butcher.

A funeral service is scheduled for 10 a.m. May 23, 2014 at St. George’s Episcopal Church, 550 Ridgewood Road, Maplewood.

Ernesto Butcher, Who Managed Port Authority After 9/11, Dies at 69


Ernesto Butcher, in 1991, near the George Washington Bridge. Credit Eddie Hausner/The New York Times

Ernesto Butcher, a soft-spoken Panamanian immigrant who effectively took over management of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as its most experienced surviving operations officer, died on May 15 in Maplewood, N.J. He was 69.

He apparently suffered a heart attack while jogging near his home, his wife, Kristen Peck, said in confirming the death.

Among the more than 2,700 people killed that day at the World Trade Center, where the authority had its headquarters, 84 were agency employees. One, Neil Levin, the executive director, was Mr. Butcher’s boss.

As chief operating officer, Mr. Butcher marshaled thousands of managers and employees scattered throughout the region, took charge of closing the gateways to the city and established a temporary headquarters for the agency in Jersey City on Sept. 11.

Two days later, while taking phone calls from frantic relatives of 150 authority employees initially reported missing, and with a go-ahead from the police, Mr. Butcher gave the signal to reopen the system: resuming operations at Kennedy, La Guardia and Newark International airports; the George Washington Bridge; two Hudson River tunnels; the shipping terminals of Brooklyn, Newark and Jersey City; and a dozen other facilities run by his agency.

“I’m here today to assure the people of New York and New Jersey — and throughout the world — that the Port Authority is open for business,” he said at a news conference on Sept. 13.

Ronald Shiftan, who as Mr. Levin’s deputy was later appointed acting executive director, ceded operational authority in the following months to Mr. Butcher.

Mr. Butcher delivered eulogies at 84 funerals and memorial services for authority employees. Fearing that exhaustion would compromise the system, he urged agency employees not to volunteer in their off hours during the workweek at the site of the collapsed towers.

Ken Philmus, who was director of tunnels and bridges at the time, said in an interview: “My toll collectors were working a full shift, then going downtown to work on the pile, working around the clock. Ernesto understood it. But with him, the public interest always had to come first. Our job was to keep the system running.”

After being named chief operating officer in 1999, Mr. Butcher, a career civil servant at the authority, served under a dozen board chairmen, executive directors and deputy executives, all appointed by either the governor of New York or the governor of New Jersey under a power-sharing arrangement. But beginning in 2010, he told his family, political appointees seemed to be pushing him toward the door.

Mr. Butcher complained to his boss, Christopher Ward, the authority’s executive director, that two appointees of Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey — Bill Baroni, the deputy executive director, and his lieutenant, David Wildstein — had excluded Mr. Butcher from meetings as they undertook to trim the agency’s roughly $8 billion annual budget.

Both Mr. Butcher and Mr. Ward found themselves blamed by unidentified Port Authority officials, quoted by newspapers, for cost overruns in the rebuilding of the World Trade Center, employee overtime expenses, and hefty 2011 bridge and tunnel toll increases.

Mr. Ward, who was widely credited with jump-starting development of the stalled World Trade Center site after being appointed in 2008, resigned in 2011. Mr. Butcher, who had planned to retire at the end of 2012, retired instead in April that year, ending a 41-year career at the authority.

“He had nothing to do with those budgets,” Mr. Ward said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “It is unconscionable for a man of Ernesto’s integrity to be forced to end his distinguished career under a cloud.”

Mr. Baroni and Mr. Wildstein, both of whom resigned from the Port Authority last year over their involvement in the controversy over the George Washington Bridge lane closings, did not respond to requests for comment.

“ ‘Bridgegate’ would not have happened if Ernesto had still been there,” Mr. Ward said.

Ernesto Leonardo Butcher was born on Aug. 9, 1944, in Colon, Panama, a Caribbean seaport near the Panama Canal. His father, Lorenzo, worked in canal operations. His mother, Naomi, died when Ernesto was 4.

Soon after his father remarried, Mr. Butcher was sent to live with relatives, ending up with an aunt in Brooklyn. He graduated from Boys High School (now Boys and Girls High School) in Brooklyn and Hunter College, where he studied psychology and literature.

After serving with the Peace Corps in South Korea, where he became fluent in Korean, he received a graduate degree in international affairs from the University of Pittsburgh.

Besides his wife, he is survived by a daughter, Mijha Butcher Godfrey; a granddaughter; and three stepchildren.

Before becoming chief operating officer, Mr. Butcher was manager of the George Washington Bridge, director of bridges and tunnels, and head of several other departments. The introduction of E-ZPass, electronic highway signage, light rail AirTrains to J.F.K. and Newark airports, and the decade-long stripping and repainting of the George Washington Bridge happened on his watch.

When Mr. Butcher was manager of the Port Authority bus terminal in the mid-1980s, he rid it of drug addicts and prostitutes by persuading state officials to send him social workers; they helped place most of the bus terminal’s vagrant population in rehabilitation programs and halfway houses.

“We wanted to provide an alternative, not compound the problem,” he said.


Office of the Executive Director
Bulletin #14-03

May 16, 2014

This morning, Deb and I learned the sad news that Ernesto Butcher passed away yesterday. Ernesto retired from the agency as Chief Operating Officer in 2012, after a distinguished 41-year career. He was highly regarded by all who worked with him and recognized for his dedicated, courageous, and compassionate leadership – particularly in the days after September 11.

Many of you are aware of Ernesto’s tireless work to ensure that the Port Authority’s facilities remained secure and fully operational in the hours following the attacks. He was also instrumental in coordinating with local, state, and federal agencies to assist in the rescue and recovery efforts at Ground Zero, as well as accounting for the agency’s survivors and missing and providing assistance to family members.

In 2003, Ernesto was recognized before the New Jersey State Assembly for his outstanding achievements and contributions to the community. At the ceremony, former Port Authority Chairman Jack G. Sinagra described his impact on the agency in this way: "Ernesto Butcher’s courage and quiet strength were one of the keys to the Port Authority’s recovery in the days and weeks following September 11. His excellent judgment helped guide the agency as it sought to restore critical transportation services to the region, while ensuring safety and security. Ernesto is a true leader, and this honor is a fitting tribute to one of the unsung heroes of our region’s darkest hour.”

Prior to being named COO, Ernesto held a number of positions in the Tunnels, Bridges & Terminals Department, including Manager of the George Washington Bridge, Manager of the Port Authority Bus Terminal, Deputy Director of the Interstate Transportation Department, and Director, TB&T. He was a long-standing member of the Port Authority Ethics Board, and was known for the encouragement and sound career guidance he provided to agency staff. Ernesto was also a recipient of the Howard S. Cullman Distinguished Service Medal, the highest award for service given by the Board to a Port Authority employee.

A funeral service will be held on Friday, May 23, 2014 at 10:00 a.m. at St. George’s Episcopal Church, 550 Ridgewood Road, Maplewood, NJ. Following the service, all are invited to attend a community gathering at the Butcher home, in Maplewood.

We ask that you keep Ernesto’s family in your thoughts.

// Original Signed By //

Patrick J. Foye

Executive Director


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