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Elk River Priests Look Back At Role They Played In NYC On 9/11, And The Coffee That Saved Their Lives

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- For two Minnesota priests, 9/11 marks the day they nearly lost their lives.

WCCO first met the men walking the streets of New York City after the Twin Towers fell 20 years ago.

Liz Collin got them back together to reflect on the morning, and the cup of coffee that kept them safe -- and changed the course of their ministry.

Inside the Church of St. Andrew in Elk River, the mantra is repeated: Life is precious. They are the same words Fathers Peter Kirchner and Jeff Ethen live by two decades after what was supposed to be a sightseeing tour of New York City.

"We drove over the bridge and we saw the Twin Towers and I said, 'Well, tomorrow morning we're going to be at the observation deck in one of the towers," Kirchner said.

They woke up Sept. 11 three miles from the World Trade Center. Instead of heading out first thing for breakfast at the restaurant atop the North Tower, the two stayed for one more cup of coffee.

Minutes later, a maid ran in to tell them what had happened.

"Later on we learned that nobody got out of the restaurant," Ethen said.

After watching the second plane strike, they knew they needed to help.

"So we put on our black shirts and collars and walked down to Ground Zero not knowing where we were headed," Ethen said.

It's where WCCO first met the two priests working a sort of street ministry, along with spending time at St. Vincent's Hospital, where the images from firefighters are forever etched in their minds.

Fathers Peter Kirchner and Jeff Ethen
Father Peter Kirchner and Father Jeff Ethen (credit: CBS)

"We spent the whole day there keeping the firefighters from going back to Ground Zero. They themselves were in shock and wanted to return," Ethen said. "Part of the job was to sit on their laps and take their boots off. It didn't take long for the entire hallway to be shin deep in firefighters equipment that was being shed as they were being taken down to the emergency room."

They were also tasked with delivering the terrible news to families in desperate search of loved ones.

"Our job was to look them in the eye and to tell them that it's over. They had permission to quit," Ethen said. "It was either stay busy or sit down in shock, and that would have overcome you."

In the days that followed, they celebrated mass with New Yorkers to remind the faithful of the help that was there.

"The help they're calling out for was not the army, not the military. What the people were calling out for was God," Ethen said.

They've held on to newspapers and pictures for the last 20 years to remind them of all they witnessed.

"I have boxes of archives that I go through every anniversary, including this coffee cup that saved our lives," Ethen said. "If we keep remembering this and the part that we played in doing this, we don't so much relive the horror of it. But we remember the bonding and the brotherhood."

Both priests marked the first, fifth, 10th and 15th anniversaries of 9/11 in New York City. Only Father Jeff Ethen will make the trip this week. Father Peter Kirchner is on kidney dialysis and sticks close to home.

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