NZ priest remembers his Ground-Zero, 9/11 terror experience


An Auckland Catholic priest who supported US emergency services in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attack is clear: people of all ethnicities and faiths should be honoured at all times.

We shouldn’t wait for the anniversary of a terrorist attack to do this, East Coast Bays Parish priest Father Emile Frische (pictured) says.

Frische was working at the Archdiocese of New York on September 11, 2001, when two planes crashed into the World Trade Centre’s​ Twin Towers.

The crashes caused 2,996 people to lose their lives in the 9/11 terror attacks. Many more were injured.

Frische says he was walking from his church when he was stopped and told about the first plane.

“The general understanding then was that it was an accident, but another five minutes up the road, somebody else said ‘another plane has gone into the towers’ and it was pretty obvious then that was no accident.”

He was asked to go up to a hotel that afternoon to speak to family members of victims of a company in the towers. It was a site he says he will never forget.

He went on to spend the next two weeks offering pastoral support to relatives of Cantor Fitzgerald staff. Its firm’s headquarters were destroyed in the terror attacks, killing the 658 people at work that day.

He then spent eight months in the morgue at Ground Zero​.

There, struggling emergency services personnel asked him for blessings and confessions in between bringing in their fallen colleagues.

It was a sacred time that made him realise the value of life, Frische says.

“That was always very special. It would be announced the remains were being brought out [of the rubble] and people would honour that, and would stand and bow their heads.

“There wasn’t much [in the way of human remains] left because the heat was so intense,” he recalls.

Twenty years later, Frische says he feels lucky not to have suffered any health conditions – such as cancer, serious respiratory illness and asthma. All of these conditions are being seen in other 9/11 terror attack responders after breathing in toxic dust from the collapsed towers.

Frische did struggle with his mental health afterwards though and started seeing a therapist a year later.

“Every time I would hear the news of the towers … It would just knock me for six for a while.”

Despite this, Frische found some courage to visit and pray at the 9/11 Memorial pools in 2016, and will do so again “with a little help from some friends” next time he’s in New York.

Frische also has strong memories of how people cared for each other during the clean-up.

While each anniversary of the terror attacks remind everyone that hate crimes must not be tolerated, Frische says it shouldn’t take a terrorist attack – such as the Christchurch mosque shootings – to remind us that all people deserve respect, no matter their ethnicity, language, skin colour or faith.

“Every person is important. We can’t grade people. It’s something that we have to be aware of all the time,” he says.

Listen to Frische who was interviewed by Heather du Plessis-Allan on NewsTalk ZB.


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