By Archpriest John Matusiak
When the Very Rev. John W. Stefero, Chaplain, Colonel, United States Air Force, arrived at the Pentagon for temporary duty on September 10, 2001, little did he suspect that he would be listed as a survivors of a terrorist attack.
Father Stefero, a priest of the Orthodox Church in America stationed at European Command Headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, was attending a four-day conference of the US Unified Command Chaplains and their assistants that opened in the Pentagon on the morning of September 11.
“We had just completed our opening devotion and had taken a short break,” Father Stefero said. “Upon returning to our conference room, we were asked to vacate the building. We had seen TV broadcasts of the attack on the World Trade Center and we assumed that evacuation of the Pentagon was just a precaution.”
But, unknown to Father Stefero and those with him, the Pentagon had already been struck by the hijacked airliner, causing the deaths of hundreds of passengers and Pentagon employees.
“At first, we felt a tremor and heard a noise similar to an air conditioner malfunctioning, but little else,” Father Stefero said. “Fortunately, we were in a different section of the building.”
Upon evacuation—a huge blast of smoke and blaring sirens were their first warning that something serious had taken place—guards pulled aside Father Stefero and the other chaplains, asking for their help and prayers.
“We were organized into teams to aid the injured,” Father Stefero recalled. “I personally helped about 20 injured. Most had been burned. Some were in shock. But as each stricken person realized that I was a chaplain, he or she wanted prayer and consolation.”
The chaplains prayed with the victims until they were able to move them into van and SUVs, as no ambulances were available in their specific area.
“We had to work quickly and cautiously, as there was word that a second airplane was enroute for another attack,” Father Stefero said. “We became concerned when we heard a plane buzzing over our heads, but we were relieved to learn that it was an Air Force F-16 patrolling the area.”
After helping the injured get to hospitals, Father Stefero and the other chaplains donned masks and gloves and reentered the Pentagon to search for other victims.
“We made it into the courtyard and the Pentagon , but fire fighters turned us away,” Father Stefero continued. “The smoke was too dense, the heat too intense.”
The following day, the chaplains met with families and friends of missing Pentagon employees and manned a telephone hotline set up for those seeking information on their loved ones or desiring counseling.
“We responded to over 300 people, either in person or by telephone,” Father Stefero said. “Again, they were very grateful that chaplains were present as they searched for answers and tried to understand why something like this would occur.”
On Thursday, September 13, Father Stefero and several other chaplains assisted the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and two church groups that had set up operations at the crash site.
“The young people working in the temporary morgue were especially happy to see us,” Father Stefero said.
Unable to get a commercial flight out of Reagan National Airport, Father Stefero returned to Germany on a military flight on Saturday, September 15.
“With possible action, including military action, being considered in the future, I am very concerned about escalation of this event,” Father Stefero said upon his return to Stuttgart. “I hope that our faithful will continue to pray for those who serve in our armed forces, especially all of our Orthodox members and their families, as these will be trying times. Most importantly, may God’s Will be done here on earth as it is in heaven as we seek His guidance, wisdom, and mercy.”