Curator's Choice tells the stories behind prized objects and artifacts from the collections of historical organizations and cultural institutions in Pennsylvania.

Nearly five years ago, on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, the unthinkable had occurred: terrorists attacked the country’s financial and military centers at the World Trade Center in New York City and at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. Western Pennsylvania was not immune and felt the direct impact with the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 near Shanksville, in rural Somerset County, eighty miles southeast of Pittsburgh and one hundred and fifty miles northwest of the nation’s capital.

In the frenzied and frightening confusion of the morning, as the airliner – originally bound for San Francisco from Newark, New Jersey – careened through the skies above southwestern Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh International Airport officials warned city representatives of its flight path, prompting immediate talk of evacuation. In Somerset County, residents witnessed the crash of the Boeing 757 aircraft and watched as police, fire, and emergency responders from throughout the region raced to the scene to rescue survivors. They found none.

Because of the location of the crash and its designation as a crime scene, the Pittsburgh Division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was assigned jurisdiction over the site. FBI agents Рmany of them Pittsburghers­ Рfaced the daunting tasks of securing perimeters, scouring the wreckage, consoling family members, and recovering evidence for the investigation.

As an official chaplain of the FBI’s Pittsburgh Division, the Reverend Joseph McCaffrey rushed to Shanksville within twenty-four hours after the tragedy to offer spiritual comfort and emotional support to FBI agents and emergency personnel. Shortly after appearing at Shanksville, though, an agent asked ”Father Mac” – as the affable Roman Catholic priest is known throughout the agency – to counsel the families of the victims as they began arriving. He escorted victims’ relatives and loved ones to the crash site, prayed with them, and talked at length with them about their loss. Several days later, Father McCaffrey was called upon to conduct a prayer service for the families and friends at nearby Seven Springs Mountain Resort.

To emphasize that history is being made each and every day, the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center has recently unveiled a selection of objects and artifacts directly related to what Father McCaffrey calls the “horrific evil” of an early September morning that had dawned beautifully with blue skies. Added to the center’s long-term exhibition, “Points in Tune: Building a Life in Western Pennsylvania” is a segment entitled “Collecting the Present: September 11 and Western Pennsylvania,” which features Father McCaffrey’s official FBI jacket, a rosary, a portable mass kit, a holy water vial, and vestments, all of which he used while at the crash site or during the prayer service several days later.

For information, write: Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History center, 1212 Smallman St., Pittsburgh, PA 15222; telephone (412) 454-6000; or visit on the Web.


The editor thanks Nicholas P. Ciotola, curator, Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, for providing images and text for this installment of “Curator’s Choice.” He conducted an interview with the Reverend Joseph McCaffrey on March 8, 2005.