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Helicopter Heroes

Posted on June 07, 2024 in: General News

Helicopter Heroes


By: Elisha Valladares-Cormier

Nearly 150 people were rescued from violence in Haiti thanks to the courage of two Florida Knights

As Anthony Marinello guided his helicopter into Haitian airspace under the cover of night, he thought about the unknown dangers awaiting him and the other team members aboard.

It was just after 2:30 a.m. on Tuesday, March 12. Thirty hours earlier, Marinello had been in Florida, heating his dinner and preparing to enjoy his Sunday evening. Now, he was flying into a volatile region exploding with violence. Could they be shot down by the gangs who had taken control of much of Haiti over the previous week? Would they return home to their families?

But even when his Sikorsky S-76 aircraft broke through the clouds, revealing the fires and billowing smoke of ruin in the nation’s capital, Port-au-Prince, Marinello remained resolute.

“I’ve captured hundreds of criminals by helicopter, operated thousands of medevac flights, and this was the most intense thing I’ve ever done,” said Marinello, a law enforcement pilot for more than 20 years. “We risked our lives, but it was up to us to get this thing done.”

Marinello and his co-pilot, Benny Matos, both Knights of Columbus in Florida, flew three helicopter rescue trips to Haiti this spring. Over five weeks, they brought 143 people, mostly Americans, out of the troubled nation to safety.

“Our code — and anyone else who’s served in law enforcement — is that we respond when someone’s in trouble,” said Matos, a longtime New Jersey state trooper who is now a K of C field agent and deacon. “It didn’t matter if it was average Joes or corporation presidents. All we knew was that people needed to be saved, and that was enough for me.”


Marinello was eating dinner at his home near Fort Lauderdale, Florida, when his phone rang around 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, March 10.

“I’m calling from the office of Congressman Cory Mills. Can you fly a mission to rescue Americans in Haiti? You’d need to leave tonight.”

Marinello’s first thought was this had to be a joke, a friend calling to pull his leg. His helicopter air medical service, Tropic Air Rescue, had just started operating March 1. There’s no way he’d get a call like this so soon, he thought.

But the staffer assured him the request was real. Gangs of violent rebels had forced the airport in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s largest city, to close, and hundreds of Americans were effectively trapped. Among them were Mitch Albom, a bestselling author based in Michigan, and nine other visitors to the orphanage Albom established in Port-au-Prince. A member of the group contacted U.S. Rep. Lisa McClain of Michigan for assistance, who looped in Mills.

A U.S. Army veteran, Mills had rescued Americans from dangerous situations before: He brought a woman and her three children out of Afghanistan in September 2021 and helped shuttle out more than 250 Americans from Israel in October 2023.

Now, the congressman needed a pilot crew to evacuate the Americans in Haiti. Marinello was the 13th pilot his office had contacted — the first 12 were unable, or unwilling, to help.

“I thought about it for a minute, and I said, ‘Yeah, I think we can do that,’” said Marinello, a member of John A. Hill Council 4955 in Pompano Beach. “So I put my food in the fridge and headed to the airport.”

But first, he called Matos, his close friend and colleague of more than two decades. Marinello and Matos served together in the New Jersey State Police for many years, and both moved to Florida when they retired from law enforcement. No Matos, no mission. At first, Matos wasn’t sure about going, until he heard who needed to be rescued.

“When he said these Americans were serving an orphanage, the first thing I thought about was Father McGivney and his care for orphans,” recalled Matos, who had attended a K of C exemplification that afternoon. “My ‘yes’ was instant after that.”

As Matos began the hourlong drive from his home in West Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport, Marinello and his staff began making plans and preparing the helicopter.

The four-man crew — Marinello, Matos, Mills and Brian Young, a U.S. Army Special Forces veteran — departed from Fort Lauderdale around 10:30 p.m. for the Dominican Republic, where they would make a final assessment before carrying out the mission. Stopping for gas in the Bahamas and in Turks and Caicos, they finally arrived in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, early Monday morning.

The rising sun prevented a covert operation to Haiti, which shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic, and the crew didn’t want to risk drawing the attention of insurgent gangs. So they took the day to rest and draw up new plans after deciding on a new, secret pickup location with Albom. They also communicated with the U.S. State Department and Dominican foreign ministers to ensure they had permission to fly to Haiti. That evening, they flew to the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo to fuel up and waited for darkness to fall.

Before leaving Santo Domingo, Mills asked Matos, who serves as a deacon at Our Lady, Queen of the Apostles Parish in Royal Palm Beach, to offer a prayer and blessing for the group.

“The four of us joined hands and bowed our heads,” Marinello recalled. “When we looked up, we saw the entire terminal — practically every person in the building — had stopped to watch us pray. They didn’t know exactly what we were going to do, but they knew something was happening.”


Around 2 a.m., the crew began the 30-minute flight from Santo Domingo to the new pickup location. Given the sudden change, Marinello had only a satellite image of the location — he would be landing almost sight unseen. To help him find the spot, he instructed the evacuees to listen for the helicopter and then “blink every light in the house like a Christmas tree.”

The helicopter flew over the Dominican-Haitian border and between two mountain ridges before breaking through the clouds. “That’s when the seriousness of what we were doing really set in,” Matos recalled.

They soon spotted the blinking house lights. The pilots were trained to always fly a few reconnaissance circles when approaching an unfamiliar landing zone, especially at night, to detect wires or trees that could endanger the landing. But Marinello decided they didn’t have enough time for that — Port-au-Prince was essentially a war zone. They were going in blind.

As Albom later wrote in the Detroit Free Press, Mills and Young jumped from the helicopter as soon as it touched down, yelling a series of commands: “All 10 here?” “Everybody in?” “Everyone OK?” “Everyone got passports?” “GO!” The rescue, from touchdown to liftoff, took just 67 seconds.

With 14 people now aboard, Marinello flew back to the airport in Barahona, Dominican Republic. From there, the evacuees would take a three-hour shuttle to Santo Domingo and fly back to the United States. Before that could happen, however, they were stopped by Dominican airport security.

“We had told them we were on a diplomatic mission,” Marinello said. “But when we got back and a dozen people poured out of the helicopter, their eyes got as big as saucers, and they started pulling out their radios.”

Several enforcement agencies arrived to question the group. But thanks to Matos’ translation efforts, any confusion was cleared up.

The exhausted crew returned home the next morning, but their respite was short-lived. Within a few days, the Florida state government reached out to Marinello about doing a second rescue mission, this time coordinated with Haitian officials. The state estimated an additional 400-600 Floridians were still trapped in Haiti. Marinello and Matos jumped back into their flight suits and headed to Cap-Haïtien International Airport on Haiti’s northern shore — about 80 miles north of Port-au-Prince — on March 18.

Once they landed, however, Haitian officials refused to let them take off again due to paperwork problems, Marinello said. The situation went on for two more days before they were allowed to leave, departing for a daytime rescue of 14 people from a United Nations landing zone in Port-au-Prince.

There, the pilots experienced a taste of the violent chaos that had enveloped the city. An armed group of Haitians tried to prevent them from taking the people to be evacuated. Security guards connected to the evacuees pushed back. Helping people into the helicopter, Matos — unarmed because it was a civilian operation — was stuck in the middle. “I had to push one guy and punch another just to get back into the helicopter,” he said. “I basically jumped into the helicopter and told Tony to go. I didn’t even have a seat belt on when we took off.”

The helicopter returned to Cap-Haïtien for the evacuees to catch a U.S.-bound jet. But, once again, the rescue crew wasn’t allowed to return home. They had taken off without permission, Haitian flight officials claimed, and needed to pay a $3,000 fine immediately. Marinello paid, only to be told, just as they were ready to take off, that they hadn’t paid enough.

“I looked at Benny and was like, ‘Yeah, OK,’” Marinello said with a chuckle. “So we just took off.”


After waiting several days in the Dominican Republic, the pilots returned to Florida on March 24 — Palm Sunday — to allow lawyers time to work out the necessary permits for additional rescue flights. It was not a moment too soon for Matos, who arrived just in time to fulfill his diaconate duties for the Holy Week and Easter liturgies at his parish.

He and Marinello waited on standby for the next two weeks as permits were filed, and permission was eventually given for a third trip. This time, they’d be part of a small fleet of helicopters assisting with evacuation efforts.

Arriving in Cap-Haïtien on April 8, the duo made three to five missions to Port-au-Prince each day over the next week, picking up groups of eight to 10 people, most of whom were humanitarian aid workers. This time, things went smoothly. By April 19, more than 700 people had been evacuated from the capital. Marinello and Matos, who flew until April 14, were personally responsible for rescuing 143 of those people over their three rescue trips.

When news of Rep. Mills’ first rescue mission broke March 12, photos of Marinello and Matos were often included in the coverage. But the two Knights eschewed the fanfare and downplayed their heroism.

“When you get the call, you have to go,” Marinello said. “Some jobs are just more dangerous than others.”

One honor they did accept was an invitation from John A. Hill Council 4955 to be recognized at the council’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration. It was only after arriving that they realized that their chief mechanic, Richard Sill Jr., is also a Knight; while Sill didn’t fly to Haiti, he maintained the helicopter and was responsible for preparing it before each mission. “We all played our part,” Marinello said. “A lot of people behind the scenes kept us moving.”

Marinello said his wife questioned why he took on these dangerous missions. “She’d ask me, ‘Why must you help those people? Why do you put yourself at risk?’” he recalled. “Because, I told her, who’s going to help them if I say no? I was the 13th helicopter company they called. The 12 in front of me all said no. So at what point do you say yes?

“Sometimes you have to sacrifice and put your life on the line for others.”