Port Authority History: The Singular Achievement of Ernesto Butcher


” I read this morning the tribute to Ernesto Butcher whom I never had the privilege of meeting. That said, he is clearly an iconic figure to Port Authority employees who, without exception, admired his courage, his integrity and his dignified leadership in some very trying times for this Agency. Thank you for reminding us all of that.”

Chairman John J. Degnan, PA Board of Commissioners

By Roz Hamlett and Gregory Quinn

In the aftermath of 9/11, the staggered and grief-stricken Port Authority had to find its footing. It also needed a heroic leader – and found one in Ernesto Butcher, who would emerge as one of the agency’s all-time great leaders. His contribution is appropriate not only for Black History Month, but as a singular achievement in the annals of the Port Authority.

Madaline Johnson, Butcher’s personal secretary at the time, will never forget how he stood watch on the ground floor as employees emerged from the stairwell immediately after the attack.  “I’ll never forget his poise – he had a Zen-like calm that reassured us, despite the fact that it seemed like we were in the middle of a war movie” said Johnson.  “We knew he was our leader.”

Moments later the North Tower collapsed on Butcher, who dug himself out, miraculously, from under the rubble and found the fortitude and commitment to report to work the next morning.

Retired Port Commerce Director, Rick Larrabee, called Butcher the “glue” that held people together.  “It was his leadership that brought us through those first couple weeks.”

As Chief Operating Officer, Butcher was a one-man command center, creating order out of chaos and coming to symbolize the Port Authority’s tenacity and resilience after America’s darkest day. He oversaw the restoration of critical transportation systems, including the reopening of the three major airports, the George Washington Bridge and the Holland and Lincoln tunnels. Under his leadership, a command center in Jersey City was established, and he marshaled thousands of managers and employees scattered throughout the region.

What’s more, without missing a beat, three days after the horrific attack, thousands of Port Authority employees received their paychecks on time, despite the swirling maelstrom that gripped the agency.          

On a more painful and personal note, Butcher delivered eulogies and appeared at memorial services for 84 Port Authority employees killed in the attacks. Throughout the ordeal, Mr. Butcher consoled grieving families and took calls from the desperate relatives of the hundreds missing.

It is as if everything in Butcher’s background had prepared him for that day.  He had grown up with the agency. He was born in Panama, moving to the United States when he was 16.  After graduation from Hunter College, he joined the Peace Corps and spent two years in Korea. He had worked at the Port Authority for more than four decades, beginning as a Management Trainee in 1971 and rapidly rising through the ranks.

During his tenure, Butcher served as General Manager for the George Washington Bridge and the Port Authority Bus Terminal and as assistant director of operations in Tunnels, Bridges & Terminals. He also was deputy director of the General Services Department and Interstate Transportation Department, director of Tunnels, Bridges and Terminals, and deputy executive director for Operations.

Sadly, two years after his retirement, the physically-fit Butcher suffered a fatal heart attack in 2014. At his well-attended funeral, there was a tremendous outpouring of love and respect from his family and Port Authority colleagues, many whom considered Butcher a close friend.  Shortly thereafter, in a solemn tribute to his exemplary leadership and tireless service, The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey renamed its Emergency Operations Center in Jersey City as the Ernesto L. Butcher Emergency Operations Center.

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