A little before 10 a.m. on a bright September morning five years ago, Father Stephen McGraw was on his way to a burial service at Arlington National Cemetery. He had just finished celebrating Mass at Corpus Christi School in Falls Church and hadn’t had time to look up directions. He jumped in the car and thought he could just follow the signs.
He turned too early and ended up in a traffic jam on Route 27. The cars were in a standstill, and he knew he was going to be late for the burial service. While he was stressing about being late, he looked up and saw a plane fly very low overhead, and it clipped a light pole near the highway.
Father McGraw looked to his right and watched the plane crash into the side of a building. In that first moment, it seemed like everyone in the cars around him collectively gasped.
That plane was one of four involved in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. At the time, Father McGraw was not aware that two other planes had flown into the World Trade Center in New York City. He was also not aware that the building he was looking at was the Pentagon. What he saw was a terrible tragedy and he knew what he had to do.
A month earlier, Father McGraw had again forgotten his directions. While he was driving on unfamiliar roads, he passed a car accident and saw a man being loaded on a stretcher. The recently ordained priest wondered if he should stop and offer help, but after hesitating, he continued driving.
When he returned to the rectory at St. Anthony Parish in Falls Church, he felt horrible. Father McGraw knew he should have stopped and offered his priestly services to the injured man. At that moment, he made a promise that if he ever was near the site of a tragedy again, he would stop whatever he was doing and go minister to the injured.
As Father McGraw watched the plane crash into the Pentagon, he knew that this time he was going to act. He grabbed his purple stole and prayer book, left his car parked in the left lane, walked through the parked cars and jumped the guard rail to make his way toward the catastrophe.
“I had a sense that it was something I was meant to be there for,” Father McGraw said.
When he arrived on the scene, the survivors made their way out of the building. Medics arrived quickly to the Pentagon lawn. Father McGraw went from one injured person to another.
“Jesus is with you now,” Father McGraw told one man. He answered, “Yes.”
Most people think that God would feel distant during such a horrific event. But Father McGraw said that many of the survivors agreed that Christ was with them.
Father McGraw remembers the victims vividly. One woman had been burned on her back, and she was lying face down on the ground. One of her shoes had fallen off. She was asking for someone to take her shoe off. Father McGraw removed her shoe and spoke to the woman before she was taken by helicopter to a hospital.
Another man heard Father McGraw praying with one of the victims.
“What’s your name?” the man called out. He was lying on his back since his front had been burned, but he could not see. Father McGraw gave his name and said he was a Catholic priest.
“I’m Catholic,” the man answered. Father McGraw administered the sacraments to him. He gave him absolution and anointing of the sick.
“There was a strong sense that Our Lord was indeed with him,” Father McGraw said.
He kept thinking about Mary at the foot of the cross. As Mary suffered with her son, God had sent him to suffer with these people.
“God wanted a priest to be there in that moment,” he said. “God wants to show he is here through me.”
The first half-hour after the accident was the most intense. After that, many of the wounded had been taken by helicopter to hospitals, and Father McGraw waited to see if rescuers would find more survivors.
Later, he was joined by Father Francis de Rosa, who was then stationed at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Arlington. As they waited they prayed the rosary and, at 3 p.m. — the hour of mercy — the chaplet of divine mercy. They were eventually brought into the inner courtyard and consoled the Pentagon workers who survived the tragedy.
At 5 p.m., they called off the rescue efforts. It became a salvage operation as they attempted to safely bring out the dead bodies without having the building collapse on workers. The work of the priests was done. Father McGraw returned to his car — labeled as a witness car and still parked in the left lane — and went home.
Five years later, these events are still “engraved” in Father McGraw’s memory. The images of what he saw and the memory of the people he spoke with will remain with him forever.
It is now his job to bear witness to what he saw and experienced that day. Although he doesn’t bring up the subject casually, he will speak about it on occasion. Recently, he told his story to the youth group leaders at St. Leo the Great Church in Fairfax, where he is parochial vicar.
“Although this great evil was against His will, God was there attending to the dying with mercy and being close to the injured,” he said.
According to Father McGraw, the Vatican II document, “Gaudium et Spes,” explains that ever since the fall of Adam and Eve, all of human life is caught in the battle between good and evil. Most days, this spiritual battle goes on without anyone knowing. On days like Sept. 11, 2001, that battle breaks into the world where we see the effects.
“It was a tremendously dramatic moment, and yet all human life is dramatic,” he said. “It leads us to be sober and serious-minded in facing reality.”