Priest recalls the first days after crash of Flight 93

FBI chaplain still works with families

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STONYCREEK, Pa. -- On the sunny morning of Sept. 12 , 2001, a Catholic priest and FBI chaplain from Pittsburgh stood on an overlook where a command post had been established above the Flight 93 crash site, said the prayers for burial and consecration and cast holy water toward the crater.

"By the Lord's own three days in the tomb he hallowed the graves of all who believe in him and made the grave a sign of hope and a promise of the resurrection, even as it claims our mortal bodies," the Rev. Joseph McCaffrey prayed at the first official consecration of the Sacred Ground where the Flight 93 National Memorial was dedicated Saturday.

"We pray that all who lost their lives here may live forever in the mercy of God."

Father McCaffrey, who became a law enforcement liaison to the Flight 93 families of the 40 passengers and crew who lost their lives, returned for the dedication in Somerset County. He spent hours stuck in traffic and wasn't able to speak with them prior to the ceremony. But he had a sense that his ministry at the site had come full circle, even as he worried that the nation wasn't practicing the lessons of unity and moral courage that the passengers and crew gave their lives to demonstrate.

PG VIDEO: FLIGHT 93 MEMORIAL DEDICATION
PG VIDEO: FLIGHT 93 SPECTATORS
PG VIDEO: WALL OF NAMES

Now 50 and pastor of Ss. John & Paul Church in Franklin Park, he was then pastor at St. James in New Bedford, and had been an FBI chaplain for seven years. It's a part-time calling, whose primary duty is to help FBI personnel cope with the horrors they witness on the job. His first assignment had been at the crash of USAir Flight 427 in Hopewell.

As soon as he heard about the United Airlines Flight 93 crash, he called his superior, who told him to go to the site the next day. His first act was the consecration. Soon afterward he was able to go to the very edge of the crash site and sprinkle it with holy water as well.

When the first family arrived -- he can't recall if it was that evening or the next day -- "the very first question they asked was if I had prayed over the remains," he said. That family happened to be Catholic, but "I was there for every family no matter their faith."

It was outside his ordinary job description. But when he asked the FBI response team how he could help, he was told that they needed a liaison between the FBI, state police, United Airlines and the families, to offer the families information and support. That became his role.

He has remained in touch with some of the families over the years. He traveled to Princeton, N.J., with them to hear the flight voice recorder for the first time. Some family members at that gathering weren't at the memorial Saturday.

"Some of them were afraid to listen to that, and some were afraid to come here," he said.

He was at the first meeting on how to care for the families, when an instant decision was made to pave a dirt road so their bus could travel. The paving began within hours. He recalled a state police commander who put a wooden cross up at the overlook and refused to remove it when someone else protested about having a religious symbol.

When the first large group of families arrived on a bus several days after the crash, it seemed that every resident of Shanksville had lined the roads to show respect, some holding banners with prayers for the families, he said.

The Red Cross had organized a prayer service for them, but the planners were skittish about religious references. They didn't want God named, he said, didn't want scripture read or hymns with lyrics because they feared offending someone. When it was Father McCaffrey's turn to speak, he said, "I figured, 'What could they do to me?' "

He spoke of his certainty that a memorial would eventually be built on the site but "any fitting memorial will not be made of stone and granite but of the difference that this event makes in our lives," he said.

"I remember saying that 2000 years ago another group of people looked upon the loss of life after a terrible battle between good and evil and, in the face of death, thought that all hope was lost. But three days later the followers of Jesus experienced the resurrection. So things aren't always as they appear. It appears as though our loved ones are dead, but we believe they still live."

Saturday, as he gazed on the memorial of stone, his words came back to him. He heard them echoed in the speech by former President George W. Bush, who invoked the Gettysburg Address as he said that the ground was already dedicated by what the passengers and crew had done. He issued a call to bipartisanship, saying that Americans must never let differences become divisions and warned against neglecting the poor overseas.

"He represented my feelings from the very beginning. We sometimes build a monument and feel we have done our duty to the dead," Father McCaffrey said.

But then he recalled how churches filled after 9/11 with people taking inventory of their lives, how the entire U.S. Senate gathered to sing God Bless America on the steps of the Capitol, how people reached out in kindness to their neighbors.

"Where did that spirit go?" he asked. "You can build a monument in stone. But if America has lost the will of working together, then maybe the enemy is winning."


Ann Rodgers: arodgers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.


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