Ethen returns for another 9/11 anniversary remembrance

by Jim Boyle


The Rev. Jeff Ethen is back at ground zero for the 20th anniversary of terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan and elsewhere.

The Elk River native was in New York City that fateful day and has returned for the first, fifth, 10th and 15th anniversaries of two jet airplanes crashing into the twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001.

He and his travelmate, the Rev. Peter Kirchner, both priests for the St. Cloud Diocese, were scheduled to be at the top of north tower for breakfast at the time of the attack, but they lingered over a second cup of coffee at the Leo House, a nonprofit hotel run by nuns.

“We were scheduled to go to the observation deck and restaurant, but we were delayed,” Kirchner said.

That their lives were spared in this attack on America is only the beginning of their story, though. Their second cup of coffee also thrust them into service and it offered a glimpse of America at its core.

The pair headed for what would later be dubbed ground zero and were directed by police to the nearest hospital, St. Vincent’s. Their collars, which would have gone mostly unnoticed in the days leading up to the attack, served as a badge, an acknowledgment of the essential services they could provide.

“The greatest truth revealed in those first few days after the attack was that deep down we are in fact a spiritual country,” Ethen said. “Despite our facade of secularism, what got us off our knees as a nation that morning was not a cry for vengeance (though, that would come) but a plea to God for help.”

Clergymen sent to closest hospital to minister to injured

Ethen said people fled the carnage as white dust cloaked lower Manhattan at the same time rescuers raced against the tide of retreating civilians.

“To control the crowd, orders were eventually given that only essential personnel be in the area: firefighters, EMTs, hospital staff, law enforcement,” Ethen said. “Fr. Peter and I looked at each other. As clergy, we were essential. We changed into our clerical collars, our badges, and walked toward the towers, directed by police, to the hospital nearest ground zero.”

The pair teamed up with New York’s Cardinal Edward Egan, who arrived first from his office around the corner as firefighters were being brought to the hospital.

“Until more clergy from various denominations arrived, the three of us worked triage,” Ethen said. “We worked fast. The second tower hit was the first to fall because it was sliced through on lower floors than the first tower. When that tower collapsed, firefighters had climbed nearly 80 floors of the original crash site. By the time they were warned to evacuate onto the plaza, their tower fell. Blinded by smoke, crawling over and under debris, the survivors were packed into each ambulance by the half dozen or more.”

The hospital sat on a full city block. The rear loading dock was used to receive the mass of wounded. Ethen said they assessed each firefighter as they were trundled deep into the hospital. When gurneys ran short, they used office chairs.

“The gravely injured were in Cardinal Egan’s hands, offering the Catholic last rites, if appropriate, or blessings for others,” Ethen said. “Fr. Peter’s and my job was to incapacitate the other firefighters by taking away their boots. Many were in shock and wanted to return to ground zero. All had noses and ears compacted with dust.”

One priest, a man from Australia, lost his clerical collar, and asked Ethen if he had an extra. The answer was no, but that was not good enough.

“One of the lessons quickly learned that day was that ‘no’ is not a useful response during a crisis,” Ethen said. “Americans are too quick to say ‘no’ when not given time to think. The solution was to cut my collar in half.”

With more clergy, the Minnesotans were able to shift their focus to ministering to civilian survivors.

“There weren’t many,” Ethen said.

After a full day at the hospital, Ethen and Kirchner were asked to join a 25-member clergy team of various religious denominations for one gut-wrenching task: meet with the victims’ families.

Missing persons signs adorned every flat surface in the city

Every flat surface of the city was covered with missing persons signs, including such details as which of the two towers was involved, and even the floor where the victim worked.

“The assumption that the fire would be extinguished in a day and pockets of survival would open was quickly dashed,” Ethen said, noting the flames would remain burning for a couple months. “The search was fruitless and exhausting.”

The city opened a missing persons bureau on the Chelsea Pier. Families were informed to register at the bureau, making it one more hopeful stop.

“But, in fact, it was a trap,” Ethen said. “Brutal, but necessary.”

Once families had registered, the clergy had to intercept them before they left. At first, nearly all of them approached a family, so they could select one of the clergy.

“A bit overwhelming,” Ethen said. “Our team leader taped a large sheet of tag board on the plexiglass near the door and used a marker to list our first names. “Jeff - Catholic” joined the Protestants, Buddhists, Rabbis, etc.

“Nobody got out without our speaking to every family, willing or not.

“Think about it. What mother would stop looking for her child? What father would give up? What spouse would just go home?” Ethen said. “Our job was blunt: Look them in the eye and tell them it was OK to quit. It was over. Grief, but no guilt. It took several attempts per person to cut through their singular fogged focus.

“The scattered chairs were there for when the message clicked and the adrenaline they had been cruising on drained. I was adept at moving a chair in place with my foot before the inevitable collapse. The toughest part was having no time to pull up a chair myself to sit with them.”

Turns out that few took their advice.

“It was humbling, but I’m glad they didn’t,” Ethen said. “While they were given permission to give up, permission that they would never grant themselves, they remained vigilant.

“Had they stopped and it made them miserable for the next 20 years, I would have felt bad and they would have felt wronged.”

After a long day at Chelsea Pier, the pair headed for the door, planning to rest as best they could and come back in the morning.

“But we were intercepted and the team leader looked us both in the eyes and ordered us to quit,” Ethen said. “He said the city thanked us for our ministry, but that we had to stop. We were in too deep and if we expected to transition up and out and home, we needed time to decompress emotionally and spiritually.”

Collars mattered

The pair still had time left to spend their trip. While trying to get rest and decompress, they still felt compelled to wear their clerics when they moved about.

“The people on the streets were constantly approaching us about getting back into the church, getting themselves or their kids baptized, about reconciliation. We directed them how to make contacts.

“In a time of crisis, people need God,” Kirchner said.

A group of union construction workers, who were used to move some of the fallen girders, hailed Ethen and asked if he was a Catholic priest.

“When I answered affirmatively, they took off their hardhats and bowed their heads for a blessing,” Ethen said.

Clergy listed as heroes at first but not for long

In the first few days the heroes of ground zero included the clergy, alongside the obvious firefighters and medical personnel.

“But religion faded fast, even though we now know it lies just under the surface of bravado,” Ethen said.

They left with a renewed hope in the American people.

Kirchner said the experience demonstrated the truth of something his mother always said: “There are no atheists in foxholes.”

Back in Minnesota, the travelers were invited to speak to church and civic groups around the state. They sometimes teamed up, like when the expansion Minnesota Wild hockey team invited them to drop the puck during its inaugural season.

“We were honored along with a half dozen other Minnesotans with 9/11 connections,” Ethen said. “We used the opportunities to bring clergy out of the shadows of Sunday sermons.”

Both Ethen and Kircher returned to New York for 9/11’s anniversaries every five years.

On the first anniversary Cardinal Egan invited them to say Mass with him at St. Peter’s Church, kitty-corner from ground zero where the names were being read. Fr. Egan introduced them to the congregation, which included dignitaries such as Mayor Rudy Giuliani, as his “Minnesota Twins.”

Egan planned to write a book but died before he could finish it. Ethen wishes he could have, because he was going to write about 9/11.

Life is precious, and time on earth is short

Fr. Kirchner, who’s had other near-death experiences, says they always serve as a wakeup call.

“Life is precious,” Kirchner said. “I do what I can every day and take nothing for granted. Life is short and you never know when it’s going to end.

“At the same time God is in charge. There is no point in panicking. Compared to our eternal life, life on earth is like five minutes long. You do what you can in your five minutes.”

Ethen is without his travel partner this time, as Kirchner is on dialysis, and, while possible, it would be challenging to keep up with that while on a trip. He’s on a waiting list for a kidney, and he hopes to return for the 25th anniversary. In addition to attending any 9/11 services, they would like to hit a Broadway show and other entertainment venues.

A missed chance to respond with empathy

The pain and suffering Ethen witnessed in New York City has served as fuel for himself. He tries to cultivate the empathy he feels from within and to model it for the world around him.

The Minnesotan minister said he feels America has missed an opportunity to empathize with the world.

“This was a chance to finally understand what suffering and terrorism is. It’s not getting the wrong salad dressing on your salad,” Ethen said. “Once we caught our breath we could have empathized with the world’s suffering and the world’s terrorism. Now we’re just part of the club.”

He committed to learn Spanish, something he had already been working on, and has since transitioned away from leading parishes to being part of the St. Cloud Diocese Office of Multicultural Ministries.

The office works predominantly with Hispanics, Somalians, Serbians and other ethnic groups. The St. Cloud Diocese offers bilingual services, and seminarians are asked to learn Spanish to facilitate foreign outreach. It has mission sites in places like Guatemala and Peru.

“The world was asking for empathy,” Ethen said. “Rather than go to war and beat someone up because of 9/11, I was taking the world’s invitation to be empathetic to their suffering.”

Ethen has stopped doing Memorial Day services. He has found them to be military recruitment tools. He says the definition of patriot has become synonymous with militarization. He prefers a broader definition of patriotism, one that illuminates the feelings of love, devotion and sense of attachment to a homeland or the country and alliance with other citizens who share the same sentiment to create unity among the people. He thinks of how it felt in the moments, days and months after 9/11, and before “patriotism” focused singularly on vigorously supporting one’s country, defending it against enemies, and spending little time on creating few if any policies to help those enduring pain and suffering.

“After 9/11 (America’s response) quickly shifted to who will pay for this, who do we lash out at and who do we attack,” Ethen said. “It became patriotic (to assemble a) militarized response. Patriot Day was created. A freedom tower was created. We learned nothing in terms of empathy.”

Timeline of Tragedy

Sept. 11, 2001

Nearly 3,000 people were killed on Sept. 11, 2001. It was the single largest loss of life resulting from a foreign attack on American soil and the greatest loss of rescue personnel in a single event in American history.

8:46 a.m.

Five hijackers crash American Airlines Flight 11 into the World Trade Center North Tower, killing all 76 passengers and 11 crew members, and killing and trapping hundreds more inside the building.

9:03 a.m.

Five hijackers crash United Airlines Flight 175 into the World Trade Center South Tower, killing all 51 passengers and nine crew members, and killing and trapping hundreds more inside the building.

9:37 a.m.

Five hijackers crash American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon, killing all 53 passengers and six crew members, and killing 125 more people on the ground.

9:59 a.m.

The World Trade Center South Tower collapses, killing more than 800 people in the building and surrounding area.

10:03 a.m.

Four hijackers crash United Airlines Flight 93 in a field in Pennsylvania after crew and passengers storm the cockpit, killing all 33 passengers and seven crew members.

10:28 a.m.

The World Trade Center North Tower collapses, killing more than 1,600 people in the building and surrounding area.

Source: 9/11 Museum and Memorial

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