FBI Pittsburgh Chaplain Recalls His Role After 9/11
FBI Pittsburgh Chaplain Father Joseph McCaffrey describes how he responded in the days and weeks after 9/11.
Father Joseph McCaffrey: I was going to over to celebrate Mass. I was the pastor of St. James the Apostle Parish in New Bedford, Pennsylvania. We had a morning mass, I walked outside. I saw it was a beautiful morning. And recently at that time I had received my own pilots license and a friend of mine was flying and I looked up at the sky and thought what a great day to fly. And I knew he was up and I thought well may after mass I’ll get to go. So I went over and I celebrated Mass. And as I was coming out of church, there were some people who showed up and said, “Hey Father Mac, there was a plane that went into one of the towers in New York.” I thought gosh on a beautiful day like this has to be weird. And so I went over to the house and turned on the television and as I was watching the second plane went into the tower and well I knew right then there was something not right.
And then it unfolded when I heard that it hit the Pentagon and then Shanksville, in what is western Pennsylvania. I knew that was going to involved our local office. So at that point, I thought, oh my gosh. So then I checked in with the New Castle office that was near us and was in our territory. And I asked if there was anything they need, I was available. They checked and then they called me back, yeah, we want you to report to Shanskville tomorrow.
It struck me as so surreal. It felt like you were walking onto a movie set. You could see the trees that were singed, the way it was on that day was kind of like an overlook that was naturally formed from the terrain. And I was taken to the command post there by the state police, who were already taking care of the perimeter to make sure that everything was secured. When I arrived. I was rather quickly requested to help with the families of the victims who would be arriving. And that was an unusual thing because normally as a chaplain we take care of our personnel, FBI employees. But to be involved with the victims was something new. But they thought that would be helpful and they thought I could be a liaison between the Bureau and the families in terms of some of these visits, that they knew the families would want to come to the site.
Their first question was, did you consecrate the ground, did you bless the ground? That is exactly what I did the very moment I arrived there. I came down, walked over. I was looking over the site and I did the prayers of interment and prayed for all who lost their lives there and blessed the ground. So, when I met the families later, I could say, yes, I did do that, and they began to tell me the story of their loved ones.
That was quite a moment where I’m standing there and I know that I’m doing this and what has happened here and the significant of it all for our whole country was very moving for me personally. But I was really focused on the lives that were lost, and the families that are grieving them and just trying to, as a priest, as a chaplain, bring God’s blessing on this tragic place. And the thing is I really believe in all religions there is a sense that God brings about good out of evil. So what I was praying and thinking about as I was doing that, and I definitely recall to this day, was the power of God to bring about good even out of evil. So we have this terrible attack. And yet all hope is not lost. God in his providence will bring about good, even out of this.
Well, it was rather easy because every person who was before me was someone I was feeling the need to care for. So there was a chain of communication that was regular. I was being called upon when people arrived and need help. Many times we would go right to the overlook that had formed there and they had, I believe it was the commander of the state police who put up a cross. And then people started putting their mementos, their prayers, their little expressions of love on this little fence that had been put up too. That’s where we would look at the site and say a prayer, and give them some time of quiet, and also the FBI leadership would come out and would explain to the families what they were viewing and what was taking place and answer any of their questions. And then I would lead a prayer. And then they would have time to just be there for a while laying whatever they wanted to at the site. And we would take them back to Seven Springs.
There are several families I do keep in touch with; they keep in touch with me. We were also at the hearing of the cockpit voice recorder. So some of those bonds were solidified there.
Voice recorder: Ladies and gentlemen, this is the captain here. Please set down. Keep remaining seated. We have a bomb on board. So sit.
Father McCaffrey: The interesting thing with that was, some family members were at the crash site and did not go to the hearing of the cockpit voice recorder. And vice versa. So that was an interesting thing. But we kept in touch with some of those folks. Some family members, some people that I encountered there—even the people like from United—some keep in touch. Some, I think, don’t keep in touch because they don’t want to remember, they don't want to go back, they just want to move on. So that’s okay too.
That’s always a concern, even as chaplaincy with the FBI, we’re always being reminded in our training sessions with the Bureau itself, that this is a chaplaincy like a military chaplaincy, where you are caring for everyone of every faith background, or who don’t have a faith in God at all. We’re there for everyone.
The thing is the listening skills, the just being present, supportive, encouraging. And sometimes that presence is what we often refer to as the ministry of presence. Just being there. It’s very helpful to folks. So but planning a planning a prayer service then when u know you have a mixed group is very touchy. But I remember when I got up to say something, I had been praying over this, thinking about it, struggling with it. And the big thing was that I sensed, too, was so many people were stressed. All the talks were very serious, very heavy, you could just feel the weight on everyone. And I felt called to do something that I knew was very dangerous. And that was to give them a little comic relief. I thought of a story that I wanted to tell that might do it. Much to my delight, everyone bust out laughing and I think it was just built up stress and they just needed an excuse to let it out. And I looked around and I saw Mrs. Bush laughing and I thought ok, we’re good them.
I was so impressed, with the love, the sincerity, the effort of all these different organizations and agencies to work together. And you could just feel that camaraderie, that desire on the part of everyone involved even though they had different opinions and responsibilities, but they really came together in a beautiful way.
I believe when you see the FBI personnel interacting with the state police, with the other agencies, of a brotherhood and sisterhood, that really, I think, was very patriotic. But it went deeper than that. It was a sign of humanity coming together in compassion and love and cooperation. And that still sticks with me to this day. And we did it then; we can do it now. I said back then, they will want to have a memorial here, and It’ll be granite, stone, and glass and precious things. But the only real memorial and the best memorial that we could make for those who lost their lives and in other attacks is the difference it makes in the way we live and the difference we make in their honor and memory. But the change is not what we do on the site, it’s what this site and what’s occurred here does in us.
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