See more Sept. 11 stories from the Star News:
•Sept. 11 ceremony planned in Elk River. Click here.
•State Capitol ceremony will mark Sept. 11 anniversary. Click here.
by Joni Astrup
The Rev. Jeff Ethen, who narrowly escaped death in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, is returning to New York City for the 10th anniversary.
Ethen, an Elk River native and Catholic priest, said he plans to plug into events surrounding the 10th anniversary of the attacks.
A decade ago, it was the decision to have a second cup of coffee that delayed his departure to the World Trade Center enough to keep him from being in the building when two planes hit it.
“My itinerary called for me to be at the top of the World Trade Center,” he told the Star News on Sept. 12, 2001. “We were going to go get tickets for a Broadway show and then head to the top before going to see the Statue of Liberty.”
After having a second cup of coffee, he and his travel mate, the Rev. Peter Kirchner, started to head out of their hotel when they were told by a desk clerk that the World Trade Center had been hit by a plane.
“I’m still rubbery,” Ethen said the morning after the attack.
Ethen and Kirchner ended up counseling family members of victims in the minutes and days after the attack. They also consoled witnesses who had seen people jump to their deaths from the windows of the Twin Towers.
Ethen said he and Kirchner worked at St. Vincent Hospital near ground zero shortly after the towers fell. They had arrived on foot just ahead of the injured firefighters who had survived the second tower collapse. Ethen said they worked triage and stripped the firefighters of their outer gear and boots to prevent them from returning to action.
They also took down phone numbers to make landline calls for the firefighters. Cell phones didn’t work because the cell towers were on top of the World Trade Center.
On the second day they worked at the city’s missing persons’ bureau.
A spiritual core
In the days after the attack, Ethen witnessed something that he hasn’t forgotten.
“The actual attack itself really kind of stripped away everybody’s facade of patriotism and individualism and even capitalism and revealed this little nugget within each of us that we’re actually a spiritual being, even though we might resist it or set it aside,” Ethen said. “… That first staggering step when we got up again was because of faith. Then we caught our breath and patriotism overran that but it lasted about three days on the streets of New York.”
Still, he said it’s encouraging to know that little seed of faith is there.
He and Kirchner returned for the first anniversary of the attacks, and were invited to concelebrate Mass with Cardinal Edward Egan. “We were the only two that were invited to do that, and he introduced us as the Minnesota twins,” Ethen said. “We had worked with him at the ground zero hospital.”
Both he and Kirchner will be back for the 10th anniversary.
Ethen’s story captured much media attention at the time and was aired on radio and TV stations and written about all over the world.
He’s being sought out by media outlets again, including WCCO-TV, now as the 10th anniversary approaches.
Left a lasting mark
The effects of Sept. 11, 2001, continue to influence Ethen a decade later.
He said he thinks about it almost daily and it motivates him to engage the world differently.
“It’s not like you’re pondering it so that it really directs your day-to-day activities, but it has an influence on how I preach even today,” he said. Part of that is to not seek vengeance, but try to reach out in Christian peace and understanding.
“My motivation has been to be more international in my ministry,” he said.
He sees it as a way to knock down barriers.
Ethen has learned to speak Spanish and led multiple mission groups to Venezuela and Guatemala and one up the Amazon in Brazil. He will be going to Nicaragua in January and also says a Mass in Spanish once a month in central Minnesota.
Ethen is currently learning to speak Swahili as well and will be going to Kenya in February.
“That has been kind of a legacy — my response to Sept. 11 is to reach out,” he said.
Ethen is the priest at St. Peter and Paul in Elrosa, St. Francis De Sales in Belgrade and St. Donatus in Brooten.