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His Parish Knew No Bounds

AMERICA ATTACKED | A MEMORIAL DAY

Victims: Father Mychal Judge, 68, was killed by falling debris as he gave last rites to a firefighter.

September 16, 2001|RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rev. Mychal Judge, the New York City Fire Department chaplain who died ministering at the scene of Tuesday's terrorist attacks and whose funeral was Saturday, was well-known for his compassionate care for families of air crash victims.

In 1996 the Franciscan priest became the personal pastor to many families of victims of the TWA Flight 800 disaster off Long Island, regardless of their religious affiliation. Judge spent weeks at a Ramada hotel that became the base of operations for the families, and he remained involved in some of their lives until his death at the World Trade Center.

On Tuesday, Judge was killed while administering last rites to a badly injured firefighter. After taking off his helmet to pray, he was hit by falling debris.

A Times reporter researching an article on support services for families of air crash victims interviewed Judge last year, and he spoke of his efforts to be a healing presence for people whose lives had been torn apart.

"In seminary, you can get all the theology and Scripture in the world, and you land in your first parish, and you find out it's you--the personality and the gifts that God gave you," said Judge. A thin man with gray hair and an easy smile, he was 68 when he died.

At the Fire Department, where he was known as Father Mike, Judge's parish knew no bounds. He ministered to firefighters and police, but also to crime victims, street youths and all manner of people who found themselves in crisis. He often took his meals at a firehouse in midtown Manhattan.

"The TWA families considered him a saint," said Hans Ephraimson-Abt, a New Jersey businessman and longtime advocate for families of air crash victims.

"He was absolutely hands-on. Religion didn't make any difference for him--he was the same toward everyone, regardless of their beliefs."

Judge helped to organize services on the beach for the Flight 800 families.

A news photograph of him at last year's service, wearing his brown robe and gazing out to sea, was distributed around the country.

"The water becomes sacred to them," he said of the families.

Judge's funeral drew hundreds of mourners to St. Francis of Assisi Church in midtown Manhattan, including former President Clinton, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and their daughter, Chelsea.

Only a few dozen firefighters were able to attend. Many are still digging through the pile of rubble that used to be the World Trade Center, where scores of their own lie buried.

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