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Remembering Sept. 11

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Ten years ago, two area priests were famously saved by an extra cup of coffee when they would have been on the observation deck of the World Trade Center at 9 a.m. on Sept. 11. The Rev. Peter Kirchner and the Rev. Jeff Ethen decided to revisit the area on the 10th anniversary of the event.

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Kirchner and Ethen were already good friends before their vacation trip to New York City, which just happened to be that time in September 2001. But the shared experience made an impact on their lives and their vocations.

"For us, myself in particular, you never really forget. It's kind of always there, day by day, just under the surface of everything you do each day," Ethen said. "It's amazing how fast 10 years have gone, but there's sort of that somberness that overcomes you as you get ready to go back. It will be a real spiritual feeling down there in the Ground Zero area."

Kirchner was the pastor of the Catholic churches in Verndale and Bluegrass at the time, and even now he maintains a connection to the Wadena area as the cellist of the St. Cecilia Trio with flutist Lisa Winter and pianist Natalia Heikes. He is now at Glenwood and Villard.

Ethen was assigned to Parkers Prairie, Urbank and Belle River and is now with the churches in Belgrade, Brooten and Elrosa.

Kirchner and Ethen were staying a few miles from ground zero at the Leo House, a low-cost hotel run by a group of Wisconsin nuns. It was a story that, if nothing else, vindicated caffeine addicts everywhere.

"We had breakfast with the nuns, and they asked us to have another cup of coffee," Kirchner said. "We were scheduled to go to the Windows of the World observation deck earlier in the morning, but ... the cup of coffee delayed us and a couple other things delayed us."

Ethen said the coffee hook caught on. The story was told in the Sept. 13 and Sept. 20, 2001 issues of the Pioneer Journal, among many other news outlets.

The Minnesota priests went up to the front entrance when a maid told them one of the towers had been hit, and they turned on the TV in time to see the second tower being attacked. From there, they changed from their civilian clothes into their clerical uniforms.

The priests counseled people at St. Lawrence Hospital, the closest one to the Twin Towers. The next day, they were at a recreation center which had turned into a missing persons bureau.

"There were three priests - myself and Brother Ethen at the beginning, and then a priest from the Bronx, because all the other pastors in lower Manhattan were in their parishes," Kirchner said.

Kirchner retold one story he had brought up time and again in other media interviews: at the hospital, he and Ethen counseled a man who had escaped but was trying to find his wife, who had been in the other tower. They were recently married and she was expecting.

"I just assume that his wife was killed," he said.

He said that even after the chaotic first two days when they ministered to survivors and rescue workers, the next few days in New York were surreal.

"It's kind of like being under house arrest in Manhattan," he said. "You see the National Guard and you see these fighter jets over the skyline."

Kirchner said the experience was difficult for him personally because his father had passed away shortly before the trip to New York, and then there was the terrorist tragedy on top of that.

Since the terrorist attack, Ethen and Kirchner have kept up with what is happening in that area.

Ethen said that in one of the Catholic churches near ground zero, the parishioners and other people in the neighborhood are suffering from respiratory problems even now, 10 years later.

He said that much of the rest of the world suffers from terrorism all the time, and Sept. 11, 2001 gave the United States the opportunity to empathize with that.

"We really need to be open to the spiritual side of a recovery," Ethen said.

Kirchner and Ethen had also revisited New York City on the first anniversary of the attack in 2002, where they visited the same hospital, met Cardinal Edward Egan of the Archdiocese of New York and celebrated the Mass at the nearest Catholic church by ground zero.

"He invited us to concelebrate the memorial Mass that was being held in the church while the names were being read off of the victims down in the pit of Ground Zero," Ethen said.

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