Two decades after United Flight 93 crashed in a field near Shanksville, the passengers who fought back against the plane’s hijackers are almost universally considered heroes.
But, in the hours and days immediately following the terrorist attacks, Father Joseph McCaffrey said, not everyone wanted to consider that.
McCaffrey, Holy Spirit Parish pastor and FBI chaplain, was dispatched to the crash site on September 12, 2001 to pray and comfort the families of the victims, as well as first responders and investigators at the scene.
“Some family members were totally, yeah, their loved one was a hero and they appreciated the recognition,” McCaffrey said. “Other family members didn’t want to hear about heroes; they just wanted their loved one back, and they were very emotional about it.
“They didn’t even like hearing people talk about being a hero. Different people reacted differently to the whole situation.
And it was a situation that stretched McCaffrey’s gifts in myriad ways for nearly two weeks.
McCaffrey was the pastor of St. James the Apostle Church in New Bedford on September 11, 2001, and shortly after celebrating Mass there that morning, the FBI called him and told him to get away. show up in Shanksville.
“I was called upon to help in an unusual way because normally I would be there for agents and support people and FBI personnel,” he said. “But I ended up getting involved with the families of the victims because it was such a unique situation.”
The first chaplain to arrive on the scene, McCaffrey consecrated the grounds and prayed for all who died there, a process that is part of the Catholic faith. Later, he would eventually meet the families of the victims at the nearby resort town of Seven Springs and, escorted by state police, accompany them to the crash site. There he prayed with them and remained available while the FBI explained to them what was going on.
When there were no families to serve, he headed to a lookout above the crash site, where he could deal with first responders and FBI agents on break from working among the stay below.
Additionally, McCaffrey held a mass at Seven Springs, where he also dealt with United Airlines personnel and helped the Red Cross and other agencies plan a prayer service at the crash site, which he has participated.
All of these duties, McCaffrey said, served to keep him from being overwhelmed by the magnitude of the tragedy itself.
“When I was there, I was a little amazed,” he said. “I couldn’t believe I was here. It’s a surreal feeling to be part of something where first you can’t believe we’ve been attacked, then you can’t believe you’re watching a plane crash into the ground at a such high rate of speed and the ramifications of this whole event, historically.
“But like other first responders, when you’re called to participate in something that you trained for, you just step into that role of what I’m here to do. So you focus on the task at hand, and it usually only hits us after, months later, when it all starts hitting you.
And when did it finally happen?
“There were times when I had visions of things, you could wake up from a dream of what you were exposed to,” he said. “There were times when I just needed quiet.
“I was pastoring at St. James in New Bedford at the time, and just before 9/11, I had just had the funeral of a young man who had committed suicide, and his mother and sister found. Then 9/11 hit and I went to Shanksville and managed everything there for 10, 14 days. Then I was called home because we had a 2 year old in parish who had drowned in the family pool. So after all that, I was pretty exhausted.
He too was changed.
“After that experience,” he said, “I just had very little tolerance for pettiness; the pettiness of everyday life and the pettiness that often happens in families, communities and parishes. It’s so repugnant to the real tragedies and real concerns of life.
Seven months later, McCaffrey had another haunting moment when he was invited to join the families in listening to tapes from the cockpit voice recorder of Flight 93 at a hotel in Princeton, New Jersey.
“In many ways it made it all so real,” he said, noting that each person was given headphones to listen through while a transcript was projected onto a large screen at the front of the room. room.
“I remember family members with their hands crushing their headphones to their ears, straining to see if they could hear their loved one’s voice,” McCaffrey said. “In fact, you could only hear what the microphone was picking up in the cockpit area. You could hear people talking, you could hear what sounded like the kitchen cart smashing against the cockpit door.
“You could hear what sounded like one of the terrorists actually killing someone. It was a very awful thing to hear. It’s very ingrained in my mind.
HOPE AND TRIBUTE
Surrounded by so much pain in the days immediately following 9/11, McCaffrey searched for a way to bring hope to the grieving families who attended the prayer service at the crash site. He extracted it from his belief that God can bring good out of evil.
“I think you saw it, even on occasion,” he said, “because we had a very small, small group of individuals here who wreaked havoc and loss of life so terrible, and yet there were thousands more trying to preserve life.There was far more outpouring of good on 9/11 than of evil.
“St. Paul says ‘sin abounds, but grace abounds all the more,’ and I think that’s where a person of faith needs to see that in the midst of all the evil our world can vomit , there are still many more good and far more people who want to preserve life, to serve their fellow man than those who want to destroy. This is what we must always be encouraged and find hope in.
He also encouraged his listeners to be a living memorial to those who perished.
“In my part of the prayer service, I said someone would like to make a memorial there, but the only real memorial is the difference it makes to the way we live,” McCaffrey said. “This is how we honor those who have passed away. The memorial is good for future generations to remember; how many young people, even today, weren’t alive when it happened? So it’s an important thing.
“But even more importantly, did it make us better people or not? I fear that as a nation we really need to change our attitude and behavior because we are not acting like the people who shed such brave blood for us.