The Holy See
back up

 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 105 (Suppl.), December 2007



Catholic Airport Ministry for Victims of Terrorism*



Rev. David Baratelli

Airport Chaplain of Newark International Airport

(in absentia)




I begin my talk today as we begin all things, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. In this season of the Holy and Glorious Resurrection I pray the Troparion for this holy season taken from Our Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrystostom.

Christ is Risen from the dead!

By His death He trampled death,

and to those in the tombs He granted life.

It is my great honor and privilege to speak to you today. As I do so I bring to all of you the greetings and best wishes of His Grace, Archbishop John Meyers of the Latin Archdiocese of Newark and His Grace, Bishop Andrew Pataki of the Byzantine Eparchy of Passaic.

The events of 11 September 2001 and the subsequent related experiences are as vivid to me today as when they happened over five years ago. Returning from my run on that beautiful September 11th morning, as usual, I turned on the radio to hear the morning news as I prepared to go to the airport. I listened with disbelief to the radio reports of the terrible events unfolding at our Port Authority World Trade Center in New York City.

Immediately I set out for Newark Airport where I responded to my community filled with concern and grief. A number of our people had friends and co-workers on the planes that had crashed into the Trade Center and the United Airlines Flight 93 from Newark that went down in Pennsylvania. Passengers were stranded with grounded flights and a closed airport. My initial response was directed at encouraging calm as I consoled and comforted both employees and passengers. Throughout the following days I would celebrate Holy Mass, conduct numerous memorial services and offered counseling and assistance to our airport community.

Early that afternoon I left the airport for the Trade Center with one of our Port Authority Police Officers. Stopping first at the Port Authority Central Police Desk and then our Port Authority Police Headquarters in Jersey City, I was able to offer some support to our emergency management staff. In later days and months these would become my usual daily stops where I would celebrate Mass, hear Confessions and continue to offer comfort and counsel to our Port Authority personnel and various agencies that manned the emergency operations center.

Having picked up some necessary communication equipment we next made our way through the closed Holland Tunnel into New York City. As we made our way down town the devastating reality of the Trade Center attack became more and more evident. The entirety of the Trade Center area, indeed all of lower Manhattan, was enveloped in dense smoke from fire and a cloud of decomposing building materials. A shroud of darkness enveloped the entirety of the area as survivors from the buildings, area workers and local residents sought to escape the horror that filled the streets.

Finally we arrived at the Manhattan Community College gymnasium, the staging area for our Port Authority rescue/recovery operation, which remained so for the next couple of weeks. This facility is located several blocks from the trade center.

Hundreds of police and Port Authority personnel filled the area. Immediately, I joined Msgr. Robert O’Connell, another Port Authority Police Chaplain, in hearing Confessions and offering counsel. Throughout the coming days and weeks I would return to this site and regularly celebrate Mass, hear Confessions and be present to our people.

There were regular visits to our other Port Authority facilities where, in addition to the airport, I was requested to offer Mass and provided sacramental and spiritual services. Many nights were spent at the site saying the prayers for the dead as the remains of our Port Authority officers were found and brought home. Each trip to the morgue was filled with terrible sadness and yet it was the unmistakable presence of Christ in prayer that brought consolation to those moments.

There was also the sad task of going to homes and making notifications when our Police Officers remains were found; so often young families with young children. We lost 37 of our Port Authority Police members and 38 civilian employees of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. There were also the many memorial liturgies and funerals. The solemn sound of the bagpipes as the memories of heroic officers were honored or their remains laid to rest.

The Newark Airport community itself was devastated. Although our industry may be so expansive and large the impact of those horrific events was evidenced in the hurt and profound grief that comes to a family. In the immediacy of September 11th this grief and terrible sense of loss would be seen on the faces of our many airport and airline employees. To a certain degree it even continues to be part of the present moment.

 The horror and great fear that touched our passengers was as nothing ever experienced in our aviation history. The terrible uncertainty and anxiety that filled our airport and the nation was difficult to endure for many, cut off from their families and the normal course of American daily life. The need for assurance and a sense of stability became paramount in helping these stranded people weather an event which no one was prepared for or had ever contemplated.

 When I think of profound moments in ministry throughout this time, I can think of none so profound as just being with God’s people in their need.

In those initial days, as I continued my service within the airport community and the larger Port Authority agency, I found myself consumed with a constant request for sacramental ministry and spiritual counsel. For many who had been away from the Church for years, this would become the opportunity for a return to faith and the life of the Church.

As the airport reopened and the airlines began the process of restoring service there were continued concerns both on the part of passengers and personnel. Very often I would find myself walking from gate to gate, up and down the various concourses, simply being present to our people.

The Port Authority who owned the Trade Center maintained a number of its offices in the Trade Center towers. As I mentioned the agency sustained the loss of 37 Police Officers and 38 civilian employees. In response to this terrible loss of personnel experienced by the Port Authority, a family center was established at Newark Airport. This center, set up in the Airport Marriott Hotel, became the location for our Port Authority families to come and receive counsel, guidance and information regarding their missing family members. It became a place where they could find necessary assistance for their families and the agency could gather necessary personal information that would be helpful in the ongoing recovery process.

I was asked by our Police Command at Newark Airport to assist in the planning and set up of this facility. Quickly, the American Red Cross was invited to come and take a leadership role. There was a need to coordinate airport access, hotel rooms and hospitality for the families who came for assistance in the coming days and weeks. Thanks to some of my many contacts with vendors within the airport community I was able to provide for some of the immediate needs of the family center and our families.

One of the first days following the 11th, just having celebrated the Eucharist at the gym for the rescue/recovery workers, I was approached by one of our Police Lieutenants and asked, “Dave is there something you can do for the men that had to go down to the site before Mass?” And so, the two of us walked down to the site carrying with us the ciborium containing the Eucharist. As we stood in the midst of the rubble and smoke, one by one, workers came over, uncovered their heads and received the Holy Communion. Christ was truly present and He brought consolation and hope to this place of terrible sorrow and death.

One very clear understanding of the events of 11 September 2001 and the days, weeks and months that followed is that no one or no agency could ever have prepared for such a horrific event. Without question, so much of what happened on that day and during the period of rescue/recovery was accomplished by the grace of God manifested in good people. Whether it was support for the needs of a stranded passenger, or airline and Port Authority personnel dealing with grief at the loss of co-workers, it proved to be a challenging yet hope filled experience. In this most difficult time the best and finest in God’s people came to the fore.

As I have said there is no way anyone or any agency could ever have planned to respond to such a situation. I found that so very true of myself. While I have always maintained a disaster contingency plan for the airport and participated in various airport disaster drills, the events of 11 September were nothing that could have ever been imagined. Unique to this situation became the far-reaching impact that this attack had upon our nation, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, upon our airports and the aviation industry at large.

While my ministry and pastoral responsibility has basically focused upon Newark International Airport, I found myself in this moment being called upon for service not only to the airport community but also to our agency. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is a Bi-State Agency, formed by an agreement of the two states in 1921, with its mission to support and maintain the trade and transportation needs of the New York – New Jersey metropolitan region. The jurisdiction of the agency covers over 1,500 square miles around this highly active and vital port area. Its employees represent a wide variety of personnel with exceptional and specialized talents in a host of professions and trades.  

The agency’s police department, established in 1928 with 40 members, has now grown to over 1500. Its unique two state jurisdiction provides a full compliment of police services to every facility of the Port Authority. In its responsibility to protect and serve people of the region who utilize P.A. facilities the department is often called upon to provide support and special services to many communities and agencies found within the “port district”.

In addition to the New Jersey and New York Airports, the agency has responsibility for several seaports, 3 bridges, 2 tunnels, 2 transportation centers, 1 Air-train operation at Kennedy International Airport, 1 Air-train operation at Newark Liberty International Airport and an interstate commuter train system between New York and New Jersey serving several communities of the region with 13 stations. Recent statistics indicate that port authority airports are providing service for 92.4 million air passengers, 200,000 daily rail system rider ship and surface transit operations for 252 million commuters.

The aviation division of the Port Authority oversees the operation of 3 major metropolitan airports, 1 Heliport, 1 business/cargo airport and a recently acquired multi service regional airport. Teterboro Airport located in Bergen County, New Jersey has been operational since 1917 and under port control since the 1950’s. The Downtown Manhattan Heliport is the first of its kind in the United States to be certified for scheduled passenger helicopter service by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Kennedy International Airport, formerly known as Idlewild Airport, is the main international airport in New York City and is one of the largest airports in the world. In 2004 it had 280,302 plane movements, 31,732,000 passengers and moved 1,709,457 tons of air cargo. It presently employs over 35,000 people and contributes approximately $30.1 billion in economic activity to the New York and New Jersey metropolitan region generating some 265,180 jobs with over $13.2 billion dollars in wages and salaries.

La Guardia Airport, leased by the Port Authority in June of 1947, employs over 9,000 people and contributes $7.8 billion in economic activity to the region. In 2005 it saw 398,957 plane movements serving 24,435,619 passengers and moving 15,219 tons of air cargo.

Newark Liberty International Airport (“THE BEST IN THE PORT AUTHORITY SYSTEM”) employs over 24,000 people and contributes in excess of $12 billion dollars to the economic activity of the New York and New Jersey metropolitan region, including $3.3 billion in wages for some 110,000 jobs derived from airport activity and related services. Most recently Newark has seen over 437,000 plane movements, 31,908,556 passengers served and moved 90,000 tons of air cargo.

The World Trade Center provided employment for thousands of people, with an economic influence that reached, through the City of New York, the economic markets throughout the world, profoundly influencing the economic and business development of countless nations. Several nations and major international banks maintained repository vaults within its complex. Of all the Port Authority facilities, the Trade Center was one of its most far reaching and influential operation. In addition to a number of major international financial institutions, it was the center for numerous brokerage houses and various firms representing every aspect of national and international commerce.

As you can understand the effects of the 11 September attacks on the Port Authority World Trade Center and the United States Pentagon in Washington, D.C. impacted our nation as nothing else in its history. Much like the attacks on the Metro in London and the train stations in Spain, it brought fear, anxiety, pain, sorrow and grief to the thousands of people touched by these unjust and barbaric acts of terrorism. Things will never be the same – life is now very different.

For the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey these senseless acts ushered in a new day in the operation of its facilities. As the agency presses forward to continue a safe and secure service to its travelers, there has been a development of counter terrorism initiatives. In consort with various local, state and federal agencies, the Port Authority is actively engaged in an aggressive counter terrorism program directed at assuring the safe and secure operation of its transportation facilities and services.

Within aviation specifically, there has been immense work on developing a fusion of the principles that deal specifically with counter terrorism measures and daily patron activities. There are in place a number of Terrorism Awareness Programs directed at heightening both patron and employee awareness and concern as they use the various transportation and aviation facilities.

Certainly much has happened within our world, society and our various nations since the most recent manifestations of senseless and brutal terrorism. Things are different – people are different. Perhaps we are more sensitive to the brokenness within the world and society. Perhaps in our daily living we are more careful and aware of the possibility for this horrible animal called terrorism to raise its ugly head. For me, in my pastoral experience at Newark Liberty International Airport, this is most especially true. For all of us in our airport ministry, we have seen a new dawn, a different way of doing business, a greater sensitivity to security and safety issues.

While this may be true, one thing has not changed and no terrorist can impede it. You and I, in our respective airports, are serving our people in the name of the Lord Jesus and bringing His peace, love and hope to a very active and busy part of our world. For many we are a sign and present reminder of the nearness and presence of God.

The events of September 11th and the following months have heightened my awareness with regard to certain aspects of my ministry. Because of the far-reaching implications for my airport and our parent organization, I have come to realize the importance of a chapel disaster plan that takes such a catastrophic event into account. Many of you have such situations where your airport may have a parent organization that is responsible for the operation of the airport. Consequently, you may well be called upon to meet the needs of other than your local airport community, as was I.

 Since one or two people cannot reasonably respond to a catastrophic and overwhelming need, it is vital to maintain a relationship with other clergy members who would assist in any need. One way to maintain such a relationship is through a “clergy day”. Perhaps one day a year you might invite these clergy members to come to the airport for a day of briefings and training that would be social and educational.

Through my experience with the crash of Flight 800 at Kennedy International, sometime shortly after September 11th, and other crashes, I have come to understand that such a list is not only necessary but vital. First, it gives an opportunity to assure the legitimacy of those who come to assist in a crisis, keeping out other than legitimate clergy members. Also it helps you to get a sense of who these ministers or priests are, and how comfortable they would be in ministering in the uniqueness of an airport community and crisis.

It is absolutely vital to maintain good relationships not only with carriers but most especially with vendors and companies that do business within the airport community. When it was necessary to set up our Port Authority Family Center at the airport, it was a tremendous help to be able to realize the quick and responsive assistance of various companies that provided necessary services to get the program up and running.

Another great help in responding to the needs of airline personnel, police and agency employees was my training with the International Critical Stress Foundation, headquartered in Ellicott City, Maryland, in the United States. Through the foundation’s training programs in critical incident response, you are prepared to work with personnel involved in horrific events helping them to process their experiences in a healthy and helpful educational format. In the case of a number of our Port Authority offices, I was asked to work with employee-survivors of the Trade Center to assist them in recapturing their balance and continue the process of healing following their terrifying experiences.

As we continue to function within an industry besieged with concern for terrorism, I have found it especially important to maintain outreach to those who see to the safety and well being of the airport community. In the states, we have the rather recent establishment of the Transportation Safety Agents who are responsible for the checking of luggage and people who are boarding flights. Theirs is a difficult and tiring job and so I have made a special effort to be attentive to them. The airport police are another group that especially deserves our special interest. They are constantly engaged in a difficult and challenging job.

Also of great assistance was the support of local clergy and parishes in the area of the airport. When caught short for necessary liturgical and operational supplies, a number of the local pastors were quick to respond and render necessary assistance. As the days were long and full, it was good to be able to share with others the activity of the day and know that there were others upon whom you could depend.

Importantly, be prepared for the unexpected. On the day of the Jewish Feast of Yom Kippur, a group of Jewish personnel assisting at the family center approached me with the request to lead the memorial prayers for the dead. Certainly, it was a first for me. Thanks to my United States Air Force Book of Prayer, I found the particular memorial prayers and, with head covered, led them in the remembrance prayers as they observed this most sacred of Jewish observances.

As I come to closure I would like to share with you another special moment that came some months after September 11th, during Great and Holy Week 2002. In the darkness of the crisp New York night, as I celebrated the Solemn Easter Vigil at the World Trade Center site, the New Fire blazed and the Paschal Candle burned brightly. In this place of great sadness and destruction, the words of the Easter Proclamation took on special meaning. Yes, Christ had conquered! Glory filled this place! Darkness vanished! The Risen Savior shone upon us and by His Holy Resurrection transformed this place of horror and death into a place where His hope and peace could be found. AMEN. 


* Read by Rev. Michael Zaniolo in the absence of the author.