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A hijacked vacation

Area priests escaped near certain death after missing breakfast meeting, helped survivors after 9/11 attacks

Father Jeff Ethen of Clitherall has had some life threatening moments during his travels. He was shipwrecked, cut off by a mountain mud slide, passed through the eye of a hurricane, been in an earthquake, and mugged. Last year, he was stranded in the Philippines for three weeks waiting for evacuation at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. But none of these dramatic moments compare to his experiences on Sept. 11, 2001, and the days following. This month, 20 years after the attack on the World Trade Center Towers in New York City, Fr. Jeff looks back on those emotional days. Here is his story, in his own words...

By Father Jeff Ethen of Clitherall

Father Jeff Ethen of Clitherall stands next to a copy of the Minneapolis Star Tribune that was published on Sept. 12, the day after commercial airliners flown by terrorists struck the Twin Towers in New York City. Fr. Jeff helped people in the hours and days after Sept. 11. In this photo he is holding the clerical collar he was wearing on the week of the attack. When a priest from Australia lost his collar in the chaos, Fr. Jeff tore his collar in half so they both would have one. Also in the photo is a coffee cup. This was the cup that Fr. Jeff was drinking from the morning of Sept. 11 when the airplanes made impact. His coffee break that morning went a little long so he missed his breakfast appointment, which was on the 110th floor of one of the towers. No one in that restaurant survived the attack. Photo by Jim Palmer

Father Peter Kirchner and I, priests of the St. Cloud Diocese, were vacationing in New York City in September 2001. We had a scheduled breakfast appointment on the 110th floor restaurant of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, but we missed that scheduled breakfast appointment by lingering over coffee with our host at the nearby Leo Guest House. We learned later that no one in that restaurant escaped the 110th floor restaurant that day. We had been spared.

What had been assumed was an accident after the first plane struck was an obvious terrorism attack after the second airliner struck the second tower 15 minutes later. A tragic inconvenience with the first jet became life changing with the second. Fr. Peter and I stood dumbfounded in front of the guest house lobby television. Sirens already filled the streets and would wail nonstop for three days.

People fled the carnage as a white dust cloaked Lower Manhattan at the same time rescuers raced against the tide of retreating civilians. To control the crowd at “Ground Zero,” as it would become known the following day, orders were given that only essential personnel be allowed in the area. That included firefighters, EMTs, hospital staff and law enforcement. 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.

Street and subway transportation were halted for fear of other transportable bombs. All help walked, except for firetrucks and ambulances. Fr. Peter and I were the second and third clergy to arrive at St. Vincent’s Hospital, where the wounded firefighters would soon be arriving. We teamed up with New York’s Cardinal Edward Egan, who arrived first from his office around the corner.

The Twin Towers shortly after the impact of the airliners. Wikipedia photo

Until more clergy from various denominations arrived, the three of us worked triage. 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. We used the rear loading dock to receive the mass of wounded. We had a long hall to assess each firefighter as they were trundled deep into the hospital. When gurneys ran short, we used office chairs. The gravely injured were in Cardinal Egan’s hands; offering the Catholic “last rites,” if appropriate, or blessings for others. Fr. Peter and I were given a job. Our 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, throats and ears compacted with dust.

The pace slowed a little for the three of us as more clergy arrived. One priest from Australia lost his clerical collar and was constantly being accosted by hospital staff as being a gawker. He asked if I had an extra one. I didn’t and didn’t want to give up mine. One lesson learned quickly that crisis-filled day was the word “no” was not a useful response. Americans are too quick to say “no” when not given time to think. The solution was to cut my collar in half, which I did.

With more clergy, Fr. Peter focused on ministering to civilian survivors. There weren’t many. Extra cots were set up nearby for the civilian overflow, but were never used. In all, 71 law enforcement personnel, 343 firefighters, and 2,193 civilians died. Every firehouse lost some members and some lost all.

During one of the return trips to New York City for an anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Fr. Jeff Ethen took this photo which shows the surviving members of various rescue organizations. Every fire station in New York City lost at least one firefighter on Sept. 11, 2001, and some lost all their firefighters. Photo by Fr. Jeff Ethen

Those of us on the island of Manhattan knew the world was watching, but the isolation was intense. No one was allowed onto the island. Bridges could only be used to walk out of the borough. Cell phones were inoperable because the antennas they needed had been atop the Twin Towers.

Stress increased over fear that more planes could be headed to New York, with the news of the Pennsylvania plane crash and Washington D.C. attacks. (Minnesota’s Tom Burnett Jr. led the takeover away from the hijackers on his flight headed for Washington and crashed it in Pennsylvania). There was relief when all air traffic was prohibited over US territory.

But that raised the question for Fr. Peter and I about getting back to Minnesota. If we left the island, we couldn’t re-enter. We couldn’t fly home, so perhaps a bus or train? But we wouldn’t feel any better at home. We had beds here. We stayed. There was no sleep, however, for three days after the towers fell. Noise was constant. What mental escape dozing off brought lead to awaking to the living nightmare that waited. If there was light at the end of the tunnel, no one in the city could see it. Phony bomb threats were called in, forcing evacuations of entire blocks. Fr. Peter and I were in shock and going home wasn’t going to remove that. We wouldn’t leave. There was more we could do.

Businesses and Broadway theaters shut down. Many restaurants kitchens remained open to feed rescuers. A conference room at the hospital became a buffet. Blood and clothing donors were thanked, but turned away. No use for either. The “thousands” of civilians wounded never materialized.

After a full day at the hospital, Fr. Peter and I were asked to join a 25-member clergy team of various religious denominations for one gut-wrenching task: meet the victims’ families. The city had quickly cobbled together a plan. Family members were making the rounds of the various Manhattan hospitals searching for loved ones. Every flat surface of the city streets was festooned with missing persons signs, including such details as which of the two towers was involved, and even the floor where the missing worked. The assumption was that the fire would be extinguished in a day and that pockets of survival would open was quickly dashed. The flames would remain burning for a couple months, like a silo fire.

Father Jeff Ethen, right, and Father Peter Kirchner, left, helped second grader Jordan Wick try on a Minnesota Wild hockey jersey on Sept. 3, 2002, about a year after the World Trade Center bombings. The jersey is a souvenir from the first Minnesota Wild game of the 2001-2002 season in which Father Jeff was invited to drop the ceremonial first puck. The two priests talked to church and civic groups that year and also on the first anniversary. When talking with kids, Fr. Jeff said they “kept it light,” highlighting the search dogs that were brought in and the booties they wore to protect their paws. Photo by DIanne Towalski, St. Cloud Visitor

The search was fruitless and exhausting. The city opened a missing persons bureau on the Chelsea Pier. It was on indoor skating arena covering a converted shipping dock in the Hudson River. The rink was carpeted for inline skating and the boards formed a corral. Families were informed to register at the bureau, making it one more hopeful stop. But, in fact, it was a trap. Brutal, but necessary. There was only one way in and out through the gate behind the goalie’s net. The bureau’s tables were set up at the far end of the rink. In the middle, scattered like practice hockey pucks, was a maze of folding chairs. Families had to weave through them, slowing them down.

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

Only one of us approached each family as they came in. We gave directions to the tables and inquired if they would like to see a chaplain afterwards. The menu helped. Once the family headed to the table, the usher informed the preferred clergy who they should keep an eye on. We tried to match preferences. Nobody left without speaking to one of us clergy. We worked fast there, too. The family member was usually accompanied by a neighbor or friend who was usually in a bit more emotionally controlled state.

I don’t believe neither Fr. Peter nor I could describe how bless or blasted we were in that rink. Think about it. What mother would stop looking for her child? What father would give up? What spouse would just go home? Our job was blunt: look them in the eye and tell them it was okay to quit. It was over. Grief, but not guilt. It took several attempts per person to cut through their singular, fogged focus. The scattered chairs were 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 not having time to pull up a chair for myself to sit with them. Fr. Peter and I and the rest of the team had to instruct the friend to wait until the family caught their breath, then depart. The rink was quickly filling. It turned out that a few families took our advice. I’m glad. While they were given permission to give up (permission that they would never grant themselves) they remained vigilant.

After two long days at the hospital and Chelsea Pier, Fr. Peter and I headed for the door, planning to to rest as best we could before coming back in the morning. But, we were intercepted by the team leader who looked us both in the eyes and ordered us to quit. 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. No watching the news, no looking at newspapers. Chill.

A photo of one of the many areas in New York that was blanketed with memorial displays. Photo by Fr. Jeff Ethen

Being a journalist myself, I couldn’t make that promise, but Fr. Peter and I knew what he meant. But we were still living in the thick of it. We had a week left of our “vacation.” Turned out we still had ministry opportunities left, too. The greatest truth revealed in those first days after the attack was that deep down were are, in fact, a spiritual nation. Despite our facade of secularism, what got us off our knees as a nation that first morning was not a cry for vengeance (though that would come), but a plea to God for help. Fr. Peter and I wore our clerics non-stop and people on the streets were constantly approaching us about getting back into the church... getting themselves baptized, about reconciliation. We directed them how to make contacts.

‘In a time of crisis, people need God,” Fr. Peter said. Union construction workers were lined up to move the fallen girders, working in 15 minute shifts in the airborne dust. A group of Irish Catholic workers hailed me over and asked if I was a Catholic priest. When I answered affirmatively, they doffed their hardhats and bowed their heads for a blessing.

In the first few days, the heroes of Ground Zero included clergy, alongside firefighters and medical personnel. But religion faded fast, even though we now know it lies just under the surface of bravado.

Back in Minnesota, Fr. Peter and I criss-crossed the state talking to church and civic groups. The expansion Minnesota Wild hockey team invited us to drop the puck during the inaugural season. We here honored along with half a dozen other Minnesotans with 9/11 connections. We used the opportunities to bring clergy out of the shadows of Sunday sermons.

Fr. Peter and I returned to New York for the 1st, 5th, 10th, 15th anniversaries of the Sept. 11 attack. The 20th anniversary is upcoming. On the first anniversary, Cardinal Egan invited us to say mass with him at St. Peter’s Church, kittykorner from Ground Zero, while the names there were being read. Cardinal Egan introduced us to the congregation, which included such dignitaries as New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who introduced as his “Minnesota Twins.”

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