Minnesota Twins at a Ground Zero Hospital
By Father Jeff Ethen
Diocese of St. Cloud
My traveling partner, Father Peter Kirchner of the Diocese of St. Cloud, Minnesota, and I had arrived in New York City on September 10, 2001, for vacation. We ended up spending this time ministering to the victims of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks. We spent the first day at St. Vincent's Hospital, where the firefighters and other rescue personnel were brought for triage. The second day was spent at the city's missing persons' bureau to counsel families of victims.
Our itinerary had us at breakfast in the Window of the World Restaurant at the top of the tower, but we missed our appointment. (No one escaped, we later learned). As Lower Manhattan was being sealed off, only necessary personnel was allowed near Ground Zero. As priests, we believed we were needed.As priests, we believed we were needed.
Police officers at road blocks let us pass on foot and directed us to St. Vincent's Hospital. We were the second and third ministers to arrive following Cardinal Edward Egan. He later referred to us as the visiting Minnesota Twins.
Other clergy soon arrived. The trickle of ambulances became a flood. Each cleric fell in with hospital personnel as each victim was screened. Anointings were administrated by Cardinal Egan.
The scene in the hospital was controlled chaos. No one ran. No one shouted. The first floor was littered with the discarded firefighters' uniforms and gear bags. I removed boots from firefighters, when directed to do so, to keep the ones in shock from returning to Ground Zero.
Outside, civilians were kept across the street to clear the road for emergency traffic. A family member would dash through the barriers, each time a priest was spotted, and photos of loved ones were pressed into our hands. All the photos were kept and a mural was created along the outside wall of the hospital during the first anniversary memorial service.
Father Kirchner and I were selected the following day to be part of the 25-member ministry team that met the victims' families. The city set up a missing persons' bureau to relieve spouses, parents, siblings and friends from endlessly circling Manhattan's hospitals. While the bureau was legitimate, its main function was for the clergy to tell the families to quit looking. We gave them permission to stop. We told them there weren't any survivors. Not one family departed without one of us looking them in the eyes and telling them to go home.
The experience was physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually draining. What I learned about faith is that it is active. Paralysis from the shock crept into bones. Darkness enveloped the soul. Personal willpower wasn't enough for recovery. A common belief at Ground Zero was that whatever dangers remained, to function without God was immobilizing.
Everybody we met during those tragic days wanted to connect with another human being. The challenge was never to turn down anybody's request for help. If I didn't know how to deliver on a request, I personally sought out someone who could. One priest who arrived later at St. Vincent's had lost his clerical collar. Did I have an extra one? I had only the one I was wearing. I cut it in half with a pair of surgical scissors. "No" wasn't in our vocabulary.
Walking the streets with our Roman collars during the week after the attacks attracted lots of inquiries from strangers about faith. The New Yorkers who sought us out had come face-to-face with their own mortality and wanted to talk about their relationship with God. Some wanted baptism. Some were angry with God. Our daily lives are lived superficially. The deep wound of 9/11 revealed, however, the deep-seated spirituality that hungers for justice, not vengeance; that seeks healing and strains mightily against the despair of hopelessness.