Cranberry pastor, former FBI agent from Adams Township remember Sept. 11

| Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Twelve years ago, it was a blue-sky day on Sept. 11.

That's how Jim Knights of Adams Township and the Rev. Joseph McCaffrey, pastor of SS. John & Paul Catholic Church in Franklin Park, remember it.

As an FBI agent based in Pittsburgh, Knights recalls that day through the bureau's intense efforts at Shanksville, the crash site of United Airlines Flight 93, when passengers and crew fought the terrorists on the plane. McCaffrey, the first chaplain of the FBI's office, spent 10 days there bringing comfort.

After Knights was asked to join the evidence response team, he placed a call for supplies to the manager at Lowe's in Munhall.

“We needed sifting screens,” he said, explaining fellow agents would turn shovelfuls of dirt looking for human remains and mechanical debris. They were on task for three weeks.

In just hours on that Tuesday morning, Knights left his job as on-site construction project manager for the new FBI building on East Carson Street and headed southeast.

McCaffrey got the call at his then New Bedford, Pa. parish. After finding a priest to cover his duties, he packed his things and left for Somerset County. Survivors would need to know, he said, they were having “normal reactions to an abnormal situation.”

“Evidence recovery takes its toll on people,” he said.

“I was there to listen, to give comfort, to act as FBI liaison with the families of victims and the United employees. Everyone's life was caught in an instant.”

One of the first things McCaffrey did was offer Prayers of Interment and Consecration at the crash site, even before the first family of one of the victim's arrived. He also held a prayer service with “no Scripture reading, no music and no mention of God,” as instructed by a Red Cross coordinator concerned about the sensitivities of those on the scene. McCaffrey, 53, smiled when the approved harpist added some familiar Catholic hymns to her repertoire.

His message to those who gathered: “Things aren't always as they appear, but what was real was the difference the victims had made in the lives we now live.”

As he assisted others, he relied on his “faith, prayer, my religious training as a priest and support systems of priests and others in critical response” to get him through.

He's been to Shanksville three times since.

Beyond the fact the four planes crashed on that morning weren't accidents, it was clear, both men agreed: We were all victims of the attack. Yet in that tragedy, Americans seemed to find the best of themselves again.

“We all pulled together. We were on the same team,” said Knights, 60, reflecting on the efforts at Shanksville when everyone pitched in to establish a command post and throughout the country as citizens responded to terror's aftermath. “But it didn't last. It's a damn shame it took that for real humanity to come out.”

McCaffrey doesn't shrink from retelling the story of 9/11, neither did Knights when he was an FBI recruiter for the last eight of his 26 years with the bureau. He retired in 2009.

“We seem to have lost our sense of purpose as a people,” the pastor said. “‘One Nation under God… with liberty and justice for all.' We have no consensus of what the words mean or how to live them.

“We're no longer governed by principles. Values are based on what is in it for me, and this is distressing. There's got to be a better way.”

The way out can be found even through a great tragedy.

“We don't know why it happened, but we can clearly see what a person believes does really matter,” he said. “In all our decisions we make, if they're not based in truth, somebody suffers.”

Dona S. Dreeland is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6353 or

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