Ground Zero: Memories From Priests Who Went to Battle on 9/11

The terror attacks of Sept. 11 left an imprint on the nation — and also on the lives of clergy who witnessed it and ministered to the victims.

An American flag flies above the cross of steel beams discovered in the rubble at Ground Zero on Aug. 19, 2002, in New York City.
An American flag flies above the cross of steel beams discovered in the rubble at Ground Zero on Aug. 19, 2002, in New York City. (photo: Mario Tama / Getty Images)

NEW YORK — “It started coming down on us.”

Fifteen years ago, Capt. Thomas Colucci led the men of his 31st Street firehouse into what would be the finest hour for New York City’s fire, police and emergency responders: Ground Zero on Sept. 11.

After the South Tower collapsed, the Catholic fire captain and his firefighters began digging through the wreckage, searching for any hope of survivors and the firefighters who had gone into the tower to save them.

Then, at 10:28am, the sky opened up with a roar, and a collective scream of terror erupted from the ground — the North Tower and iconic spire begin to fall — and the men and women who donned the uniforms of New York’s first responders would give the final sacrifice amid a hail of steel, concrete and debris.

As they escaped, Colucci saw some of his comrades struck down — he and a few of the firefighters found their only refuge sheltering behind a car. Enveloped in that cloud of darkness, the fireman’s vocation became clear: He would become a priest, helping those in darkness see a great light.

Nearly 3,000 men, women and children perished in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. But the legacy of 9/11 is that more than 25,000 other lives were saved that day, because ordinary men and women put on their uniforms and ran to save others from death and danger. On a Tuesday morning, 343 firefighters and emergency personnel, 23 New York Police Department and 37 Port Authority officers laid down their lives for others. Many more would give their lives — a payment deferred by cancer they gathered from the rescue work.

Colucci retired in 2004, and, this year, he became Father Colucci.

When people ask him — and many have — “Where was God that day?” Father Colucci says that he saw, firsthand, the Body of Christ in action.

“The best of humanity came out that day,” he said.

His department’s beloved chaplain, Franciscan Father Mychal Judge, had given his life anointing and praying over the injured and dying, faithful to the end in his vocation. For weeks on end, the firehouses became places to mourn, wake and bury the dead. Most of the fallen were Catholic, and the faith helped bind them together. But it reminded Colucci of the fragility of life and the need to keep the soul always united to God in the state of grace.

“We may die suddenly and meet Our Lord at any time … and then we start eternal life.” 


The Pentagon

Father Steve McGraw had only been ordained a priest three months on Sept. 11 — and was late for a burial at Arlington National Cemetery. Worse, the young priest had taken the wrong exit and was stuck in stand-still traffic next to the Pentagon.

The priest, now a chaplain at Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia, told the Register he buried his head in the wheel.

Then an approaching roar overhead shook the priest in his car. Father McGraw lifted up his head — to watch in stunned amazement as Flight 77 flew low over the highway and rammed straight into the Pentagon, exploding right in front of his very eyes.

At the moment, Father McGraw knew what he had to do: He grabbed his purple stole, oils for the sick and dying and ritual book, and then rushed toward the building’s gaping wound.

The young priest became one of the first people on the scene, ministering to stunned military and civilians — some injured, others dying — emerging from the building. He found himself repeating over and over to the victims, “Jesus is with you.”

He realized the Pentagon — in those moments of panic, horror and chaos — was their Calvary.

“I prayed, ‘Mary, help me stay with you at the foot of the cross,’” he recalled. When there was no more hope for survivors, the priest determined to stay for the dead until 5pm, when first responders were sent away. The building was too dangerous for any more recovery.

“I quickly realized that it was divine Providence that put me there that day,” he said. “I was supposedly in the wrong place, but the Lord brought me to the right place for a priest to be.”


Flight 93 — Shanksville, Pa. 

A rural field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, contains the hallowed remains of the 40 Americans who were the first to fight back against al-Qaida on Sept. 11, 2001 — the doomed effort likely saved lives at the U.S. Capitol or the White House, as Flight 93 would have reached D.C. before U.S. fighter jets took to the air. The four terrorists rammed the plane into the ground rather than let the passengers take control of the cockpit.

Father Joe McCaffrey, the Catholic chaplain for the FBI office in Pittsburgh, was the only priest allowed at the pulverized site of the crash. It had become a restricted crime scene. He did what the Church could do for the victims: He consecrated the ground and carried out the Church’s prayers for the dead.

He stayed there 10 days, consoling the living. The families of the victims started coming, and the first to arrive was the Catholic family of a flight attendant.

“They asked if I had prayed and consecrated the ground,” Father McCaffrey recounted. He reassured them that he had, and they talked about their daughter — who she was, what she was like and what they think she would have done on Flight 93.

The strangest part at the time was how the federal government commissioned the Red Cross to lead a prayer service — but they were told to include no Scripture, no music and no mention of God. Father McCaffrey asked what was left for a prayer service, and a harp was allowed. He remembered the harpist played Be Not Afraid and other Catholic hymns for times of mourning. When his turn came to speak, he realized people needed a “release” from their sorrow — they needed hope, reassurance that this was not the end.

He mentioned Jesus’ crucifixion and how Christians believe, “three days later, he rose from the dead, and good came of evil.” He assured them that death is not the end.

However, he noted that, over the years, it seemed to him that a “spiritual dementia” had set in after 15 years: The love, unity and return to God experienced in the first months after Sept. 11 seemed to have given way to epidemic levels of hatred, violence and division, undergirded by an addiction of self-gratification and self-centeredness. What people need more than ever is that love and self-sacrifice that characterized the heroism of those days, he believes: “What is missing is truly a relationship with God” in many people’s lives.


Chaplains’ Continuing Burden

The vast majority of priests who have carried with them the spiritual legacy of Sept. 11 are the chaplains who serve the U.S. armed forces. Since that fateful day, U.S. military personnel left behind a post-Cold War peace, and the number of military priests have dwindled as the needs have increased.

Trappist Father Aidan Logan, the vocations director for the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, told the Register that he was a Navy chaplain at the time. When he returned to Camp Lejeune after ministering to the Pentagon’s dead and grieving families, it was “another world.” The seven priests who served with him were all gone. They deployed with their Marines, and he was left alone to care for the base’s families. 

For the past 15 years, they have borne the spiritual burdens at home and abroad, with fewer and fewer priests — a challenge they are trying to address with their co-sponsored seminarian program, or what he described as “ROTC for seminarians.”

Archbishop Timothy Broglio told the Register that almost all of their 50 chaplains have seen deployments multiple times. They have experienced the trauma of the troops; they have fought to support families and marriages strained by deployments; they have moved from deployment to base assignments without a break. But their heroism inspires him.

“They have a willingness to be all things to all people, and that has really impressed me,” Archbishop Broglio said.

They are starting to see an increase in new priests, but nowhere near what they need. Father Logan said the Navy alone had more than 200 priests when the first Gulf War broke out in 1991. He added that the Knights of Columbus have been a critical help in organizing Catholic military members to serve as lay leaders, bringing their fellow Catholics together for spiritual support.

“If there is one strong Catholic in a unit in a forward operating base, you’ll often hear stories of him leading the others in saying the Rosary,” he said.


How Faith Has Changed

The story of Sept. 11 is heavily shaped by the witness of men and women who laid down their lives for people they never met. While many stories are known, many others — such as the last moments of the ministry of Father Francis Grogan from the Diocese of Albany, New York, on Flight 175, which struck the World Trade Center's South Tower — are known to God alone.

Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, told the Register that the witness of so many Catholics and their priests “in people’s greatest hour of need is a model for the merciful outreach of the Church.”

But religious faith and hope in the U.S. has changed since Sept. 11. While the tragic day brought people back to God and packed the churches for a month, it did not last, as Father McCaffrey noted. Fifteen years later, the fastest-growing religious group in the U.S. is the one that checks “no religious preference.”

Anderson said people tend to get more serious about God and their faith in a crisis, but the problem is faith cannot be sustained as a “reaction to crisis.” In order to grow, he said, it must be “cultivated and built up in good times and in bad.”

“Our job as Christians is to evangelize in a way that says that God adds something important to every aspect of our lives,” he said.

“9/11, like Pearl Harbor, will shape the memories of a generation, but the faith can shape our culture across generations,” Anderson said. “It is up to us to pray and to preach — with words and with actions, in season and out of season.” 

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter. 


Editor's Note: This story was originally posted on Sept. 11, 2016. We pray for all victims, survivors, first responders and families impacted by 9/11. May they feel the comfort of God.