Fr. Stephen McGraw, Christendom’s current head chaplain, was a newly ordained priest in 2001, after graduating from Christendom in 1988 with a degree in history. Just three months after his ordination, he was present when, on September 11, 2001, at 9:37 a.m., terrorists flew American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon, destroying the west side of the building and killing 125 people.
Just as it happened, Fr. McGraw was mired in traffic on the highway next to the building.
“Traffic was at a standstill,” McGraw said. “Then suddenly I heard a whirring, rushing sound from directly above the cars and turned to see a plane crash into the Pentagon.”
As a newly ordained priest, he seized the opportunity to carry out his priestly duties, grabbed his purple stole and the holy oils of the Anointing of the Sick, and ran across the highway to the lawn in front of the Pentagon.
“I didn’t even move my car, but just left it there in the middle of the street,” he said. “I stood on the lawn and waited, while small explosions could be heard from the building.”
As a witness to a similar accident when he was sixteen, he didn’t attribute the crash to a terrorist attack. He recalled, “I had no fear. I thought it was merely a tragic accident.”
Within a few minutes, medical personnel were saving the injured and bringing them out to the lawn. Fr. McGraw tried to comfort them as they were being tended to by the EMTs.
“I kept saying to them, ‘Jesus is with you’, and they would respond with ‘Yes.’ That fact alone brought them great peace. Eventually I remembered more prayers and began to say them with the injured.”
One of the survivors was a Catholic, and asked for the Anointing of the Sick.
“He did not know who I was because he could not see, but he asked for my name. When I told him I was a priest, he said he was Catholic. So I anointed him and said the prayers for the Anointing of the Sick. Two years later, McGraw met the man again, who said all he could remember was that “somebody was praying” when he was lying on the lawn in front of the Pentagon.
Another person, stretched out on the grass, was dying.
“She said, ‘Tell my mother and my father that I love them,’” recounted Fr. McGraw. “I found out later who she was and wrote to her parents.”
Ordained in June of that year, Fr. McGraw said that he was ready to act on 9/11 because of a previous experience. Six weeks before, he was driving on a highway and saw a severe accident on the side of the road.
“But I didn’t stop,” he said. “Later that night, I felt I had failed in my mission, and I prayed for the person in the accident and for myself. I made a resolution to always stop from then on wherever I was needed.”
Being there, at the Pentagon on 9/11, only deepened his conviction in the truth of God’s eternal presence. “In a way,” he said, “my being there had a larger symbolic presence. People always ask in the wake of tragedies, ‘Where was God when all this happened?’ So I was a living answer to that.”
May the souls of all those who died on September 11, 2001, and all the souls of the faithfully departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.
This story is taken in part from the Fall 2014 edition of Instaurare, Christendom College’s quarterly magazine.