Some dates and images are forever etched in our memories because they elicit great joy or terrible anguish. One of those dates for me and millions of others is Sept. 11, 2001. This year’s observance marks the 20th anniversary of the worst terrorist attacks on American soil. Nearly 3,000 people were killed.
I remember exactly where I was when I heard that an airplane crashed into one of the towers of New York’s World Trade Center: sitting at my desk writing an editorial for that week’s edition of the diocesan newspaper, the St. Cloud Visitor. It was a Tuesday — press day. I learned the news from one of my reporters who heard about it on his way into work. I envisioned a small plane crashing because of a mechanical failure or pilot error. I turned on a TV in a neighboring office and couldn’t believe the scale and horror of what was unfolding on live television.
I scrapped what I was writing. The staff and I started talking about how to cover this immense tragedy and help Catholics of the diocese cope with what was happening. That’s when I received a most-unexpected phone call: It was Father Jeff Ethen, a priest of our diocese. He was in New York on a vacation with Father Peter Kirchner, another priest of the diocese.
The two had planned to tour the World Trade Center that morning but instead lingered over a cup of coffee — a decision that probably saved their lives. After the attacks, they began working triage at the St. Vincent Catholic Medical Center about a mile away from the towers as ambulances brought the first casualties into the emergency room. Their vacation turned into a much-needed ministry of prayer and presence for the injured and distraught.
St. Cloud Bishop John Kinney celebrated the noon Mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral to pray for everyone whose lives were impacted by that morning’s events. “We are shaken to our depths by the horrific loss of life,” he told worshipers. “It is times of tragedy, such as this, that we come to realize the importance of Christ’s message, the message of his kingdom, a kingdom of peace, mercy, justice and love.”
Sister Nancy Bauer, a former Visitor editor, was in Washington, D.C., studying for a graduate degree in canon law at The Catholic University of America. One of the hijacked planes was crashed into the Pentagon. The city shut down. People gathered to pray at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
Later, we learned about the heroic actions of Tom Burnett Jr., a former student and football player at St. John’s University in Collegeville, and other passengers aboard United Airlines Flight 93 who foiled another attack on the nation’s capital by overpowering their plane’s hijackers. The plane never made it to D.C., and crashed in a rural Pennsylvania field.
We also learned about the heroics of the first responders that day. Their rescue efforts saved many lives in New York and D.C., but it came at great sacrifice — 441 first responders were among those killed.
A Mass honoring first responders and commemorating the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks will be at 4 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 11 at St. Boniface Church in Cold Spring.
I remember going home exhausted that night after we sent the redesigned issue to the printer. I watched the television news coverage into the early hours of the next morning. Shock, disbelief, grief, anger. We were all feeling the same emotions. Our newspaper that week — and for the next several weeks — told stories of prayer, sacrifice, support, resilience and the power of faith to comfort and heal.
Every anniversary since, I think of that day. It’s a solemn time to remember those we lost — to pray for victims and their families, for an end to terrorism and all forms of violence, for peace among all people.
Each year, the Diocese of St. Cloud typically organizes a Mass to honor first responders. This year the Mass will be on Sept. 11. We will again honor first responders for their service and sacrifice, particularly on this 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Bishop Donald Kettler will preside at the liturgy, set for 4 p.m. at St. Boniface Church in Cold Spring. He will extend a blessing for first responders. All are welcome to attend.
Joe Towalski is the editor and the director of communications for the Diocese of St. Cloud.