Thursday, September 27, 2001

Pentagon crash eyewitness comforted victims

Photo permission of the Army Times
Photo by Mark Faram

Father Steve McGraw, right, kneels in prayer as he prepares to administer the sacrament of the Annointing of the Sick to an injured man.

Father Stephen McGraw was driving to a graveside service at Arlington National Cemetery the morning of Sept. 11, when he mistakenly took the Pentagon exit onto Washington Boulevard, putting him in a position to witness American Airlines Flight 77 crash into the Pentagon.

"The traffic was very slow moving, and at one point just about at a standstill," said McGraw, a Catholic priest at St. Anthony Parish in Falls Church.

"I was in the left hand lane with my windows closed. I did not hear anything at all until the plane was just right above our cars." McGraw estimates that the plane passed about 20 feet over his car, as he waited in the left hand lane of the road, on the side closest to the Pentagon.

"The plane clipped the top of a light pole just before it got to us, injuring a taxi driver, whose taxi was just a few feet away from my car.

"I saw it crash into the building," he said. "My only memories really were that it looked like a plane coming in for a landing. I mean in the sense that it was controlled and sort of straight. That was my impression," he said.

"I hadn't heard about the World Trade Center at that point, and so I was thinking this was an accident. I figured it was just an accident.

"There was an explosion and a loud noise and I felt the impact. I remember seeing a fireball come out of two windows (of the Pentagon). I saw an explosion of fire billowing through those two windows.

"I remember hearing a gasp or scream from one of the other cars near me. Almost a collective gasp it seemed. I just knew right away what I needed to do."

"He literally had the stole in one hand and a prayer book in the other and in one fluid motion crossed the guardrail," said Mark Faram, a reporter from the Navy Times who witnessed McGraw in the first moments after the crash.

Within 45 seconds, McGraw was on the lawn of the Pentagon to provide spiritual comfort to the injured.

"My first memories -- there was of course a lot of confusion and disorientation by a lot of people, I'm sure myself included -- were that in those first moments there were already injured being brought to the far edge of the highway," he said.

McGraw said he saw people coming out of the building who had escaped serious injury and believes that some of these people assisted the gravely wounded in the initial moments before the paramedics arrived by carrying or helping them to the far side of the grass. McGraw said medical personnel were on the scene shortly after he arrived.

"I was trying to be there close to the wounded, trying to keep a prayerful spirit and speak words of consolation. I did approach the wounded one-by-one and the words that came to my mind were: 'Jesus is with you.' That was a refrain that I repeated."

One injured man asked him, 'What is your name?' McGraw replied "I'm a Catholic priest," at which point the man told him he was Catholic.

"I moved closer on my knees, and I remember I said to him: 'Jesus is with you.'" The priest anointed the burned man on the chest as he administered the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.

McGraw said that he ministered to about six injured people in the first half-hour after the attack. One woman whom he had comforted asked him to "tell my mother and father that I love them."

The priest said that shortly after he arrived, several military chaplains came on the scene. McGraw was teamed up with a Lutheran chaplain, as the chaplains moved from one triage area to another at the request of medical personnel. McGraw said that he believes the chaplains were able to arrive so quickly because they were attending a chaplain's conference nearby.

McGraw and the other chaplains left their ministry upon receiving a warning of a second hijacked plane approaching. They took shelter under a nearby bridge.

While under the bridge, McGraw said more than one person asked him: "Are you alright?"

"I know this much, I didn't look good," said the priest. "I looked distressed... I had seen the serious burn victims."

One military chaplain recommended that I take some rest, but I told him I couldn't leave because I had "such a strong sense that this was where I was supposed to be."

"My main focus was really on the spiritual dimension of what was going on. I remember thinking to myself and praying 'Mary, help me to stay with you at the foot of the cross.'"

McGraw said he saw a connection between the suffering of Jesus Christ and the suffering of the victims.

"That's one reason I felt that Jesus was with the victims. I had a strong sense that far from being remote from this horrible tragedy, although it followed upon a terrible evil, which was totally against God's will, in the suffering that came from that evil, Jesus was intimately close to them," he said.

"And I sensed that, and more than one injured person responded in faith, that yes, indeed, he was with them, even in those terrible moments of suffering and pain."

McGraw prayed for the dead after it became apparent that no new injuries were being pulled out of the building.

"At some point we got the word that it was no longer being seen as a salvage operation but a recovery operation. So we knew it was only a matter of recovering the bodies at that point."

The priest was on the scene waiting and praying until 5:30 p.m. when he "finally got the word that due to the dangers in the building they weren't going to remove any bodies until at least 9 p.m."

McGraw said he believes that it was no accident that God wanted him to be on the scene at the Pentagon, and that it was better that he didn't know about the World Trade Center incidents when he arrived.

During his Sunday homily the weekend following Sept. 11th, McGraw told his story to his parishioners.

"A big part of our ministry in the wake of this tragedy was to minister to people regarding the terrible suffering. I wanted them to know that the Lord attends the dying with great mercy."