At the foot of the cross

First slide

At 9:37 a.m. Sept. 11, 2001, American Airlines Flight 77 flew low over cars stuck in a traffic jam on Washington Boulevard in Arlington. A split-second later the plane crashed into the west side of the Pentagon killing all 64 passengers, including the five hijackers, and 125 people in the building. It was one of four attacks on the United States on that clear, sunny morning that took nearly 3,000 innocent lives.

Father Stephen F. McGraw was then parochial vicar of St. Anthony of Padua Church in Falls Church and had just finished celebrating 8:30 a.m. Mass for the students at Corpus Christi School in Falls Church. He was on his way to Arlington National Cemetery for a 10 a.m. funeral service. He mistakenly took the Pentagon exit and got stuck with others backed up on Washington Boulevard.

While he waited for traffic to move, something flew above his car and there was a loud noise.

"I saw the plane go into the building," said Father McGraw. "I thought it was a terrible accident."

Father McGraw didn't have his radio on so was unaware of the horror playing out in New York City.

After recovering from the shock of seeing an airliner turn into a fireball, he left his car on the road and took his stole, holy oils and a book of prayers for the sick or dying, jumped over a guardrail, and ran to the parking lot to help.

"It was chaos," said Father McGraw.

He said he repeated the words "Jesus is with you" to try to comfort the injured and dying.

More than one victim responded "yes" to Father McGraw's words of comfort.

"What's your name?" one injured man asked him.

"I'm a Catholic priest," he responded.

"I'm a Catholic," the man said.

The man's name was Juan Cruz. He anointed the man and prayed with him.

Cruz survived his injuries and he and Father McGraw were reunited two years ago through the efforts of photographer Mark Faram from the Army/Navy Times, who was taking pictures on that day, and Cruz's family.

After a while no more survivors were pulled from the building, and it became a recovery effort to bring out the bodies. Father McGraw stayed and prayed for the dead.

One thing stayed in his mind for the eight or so hours he remained with the victims, "Mary, help me to stay with you at the foot of the cross."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2011