- Local Guide
BROOKVILLE â It could have been a day like any other.
The sky was a beautiful clear blue, dotted with wisps of clouds.
The kind of sky that didnât expect what was handed to it that morning.
The kind of sky that didnât want anything or anybody to blot out its beauty.
But someone tried. Someone tried very hard.
Above everything that happened that day, and over the past 10 years, itâs what John Laursen remembers most.
âThe sky ... it was a beautiful, beautiful, blue sky, and Iâll never forget it,â he said.
Laursenâs sky was a different reality than the one he saw on the television screen.
Unmarked by the atrocity within the city, the blue sky seemed out-of-place.
A desolate New Jersey Turnpike on a Tuesday afternoon was also out-of-place.
But with the speedometer over 100 mph, Laursen hit the highway.
He had just awakened from a four-hour sleep. After working midnight to 8 a.m., he decided to bypass the morning news, which to him, was one of the many quirks of fate that occurred that day. It was a quirk of fate that saved his life.
âWhen I went to bed, it was nice, everything was beautiful,â he said. âI woke up to a different world.â
A police officer for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey â and now a Brookville resident who works in DuBois and Punxsutawney â Laursen would have been one of the first to enter to the World Trade Center buildings Sept. 11, 2001.
Although he wasnât, many other police officers from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey were.
âMy first feeling when the towers were down was that we lost a lot of guys,â Laursen said.
And they did. Thirty-seven to be exact.
But because the attacks knocked out cellular communications, he wasnât one of those 37; when he woke up, the second tower had already fallen.
âI thank God every day I fell asleep that morning because you kind of know where you go and who you work with,â he said. âIf Iâd have gone in, all of the guys I would have been with arenât here anymore.â
Stevie Huczko, Laursenâs grammar school classmate and Port Authority work buddy, was one of those guys. He was 19 feet from the door, carrying a woman out, when the first tower came down.
âThey didnât make it out, so I knew that I wouldnât have made it out,â Laursen said.
Before he finished listening to the staggering number of voicemail messages on his cell phone, Laursen already estimated that he lost at least 30 brothers; the disaster plan listed Newark Airport officers as the first command to respond to the World Trade Center.
Not only were Port Authority officers the first to respond, their corporate headquarters were located at the Trade Center.
A total of 70 Port Authority employees died that day, including most of the authorityâs senior management.
âThe loss of 37 police officers in one day has been the greatest loss of life ever, in this country, for a police department in a single day,â Laursen said.
Today, just as he did that morning, heâs still feeling the loss.
âWhen I turned on the TV, I just saw the devastation,â he said. âAnd Iâm still feeling it now. It was a flash of fear. I just woke up to it. The pulse kicked in, and my blood pressure went sky high.â
Feeling compelled to action, he got in touch with a sergeant who asked him to report to the airport. With the OK, he hit the New Jersey Turnpike, both very aware and unaware of the road ahead.
âWith my foot to the floor, I hit the highway,â Laursen said. âBut there was nobody on the road. It was empty. Dead. And the whole time, Iâm just watching the sky. The blue, blue sky. But as I got closer, it started to stain, and I started to see the brown.â
By the time Laursen arrived at the airport, he could see the plume of smoke rising out of the sky.
âIt was eerie and gorgeous,â he said. âI kind of parked the car, took a deep breath, and walked in.â
He didnât return home for three days.
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For the first few hours, he and his men made phone calls, trying to see if everyone was OK. More than 100 names were on the first list of missing officers.
Later that night, he and a busload of Port Authority police officers headed to Ground Zero.Â
âYou couldnât even recognize where you were,â he said. âWhen you walked in there, you couldnât recognize anything.â
Because the Port Authority was housed in the World Trade Center buildings, its officers were the most useful in the recovery efforts. But a previous back injury kept Laursen out of the clean-up.
âI just did what I was asked to do those days,â he said. âIâm not a hero. These guys did everything.â
And thatâs why he wants to tell their story.
Although it was apparent at nightfall that there were no survivors, the rescue during the terror attacks was most admirable.
About 2,400 people died that day. But more than 24,000 people were saved, thanks to numerous first-responders, including Laursenâs fellow Port Authority police officers.
âThe loss of life was great, but itâs also the single-greatest rescue ever in history,â Laursen said. âThey saved over 24,000 people, got them out of the buildings. It was a great loss of life, but it was also a very, very successful rescue.â
One of his captains, Kathy Mazza, was the first female Port Authority officer killed in line of duty. According to Laursen, she drew her service weapon and shot out windows, making an escape route through the lobby.
âShe saved thousands of people by taking out that window,â he said. âThousands would have been caught in that lobby.â
That first night stretched into an eternity for Laursen, and in some ways, it hasnât ended.
âThe emotional toll â that was the big thing,â he said.
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Thirty-seven funerals and continuous 12-hour tours do not go together very well.
âThe whole job â 12 on, 12 off âŚ you just worked, went to bed. We didnât even have a chance to grieve,â Laursen said. âWe had 37 funerals to go to and you couldnât even get time off to go to them.â
Laursen himself was able to attend funerals for only two of his co-workers. But this inability to grieve was what most worried the stress counselors.
âThe stress counselors said, âDonât apologize for anything,ââ he said. âWhatever it takes for you to get through this, thatâs what youâve got to do.â
And for the most part, it simply took encouragement from his fellow officers.
âThe guys I worked with, we dragged each other through it,â he said. âEverybody just kind of worked together and we carried each other through. And those guys that I worked with through that, Iâll never be as close to anybody again. We just leaned on each other.â
Although it has tapered off in the past 10 years, encouragement from civilians also became a crucial part of the grieving process, especially for those who were a part of the recovery effort.
âUp at Ground Zero, youâd see people on the side of the road, waving American flags, clapping,â Laursen said. People donât realize how much it meant to those guys when they were going in. Because you were basically walking into Hell. And just to know that people cared meant a lot to those guys.â
Despite encouragement from his brothers, some things were out of his control. The funerals lasted for about four months after Sept. 11, 2001, adding another component to the difficult grieving process.
âEverybody was trying to hold on,â Laursen said. âEverybody was hoping to get a body. And when it became obvious that they werenât getting a body, they held memorial services.âÂ
The counselors advised Laursen to worry about himself, but with two young kids at home, and a wife-to-be, that wasnât always a luxury.
âYour family suffers because youâre not there,â he said. âAnd even if youâre home, youâre not there. I was getting ready to get married and trying to plan my life ahead to move on, but in the meantime, like one of my buddies said, âAll we deal with is death.ââ
But even with this grim outlook, there was a light at the end of the tunnel.
Some of that light came from Laursenâs faith.
âChurch â itâs where I wanted to go,â he said. âSept. 15 (2001) I got home from my first day and I woke up and went down to a church. I was only there for a couple of seconds. But it helped.â
The airportâs chaplain was also instrumental in Laursenâs healing process.
âOur chaplain, Father Dave, would have us go out on the floor for a while and hold hands,â he said. âWe would cry for a few minutes but then we would say âOK, weâre goodâ letâs do this again.ââ
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Laursen did it again, each and every day until 2007, when he retired.
After 20 years of service to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Laursen thought it best to say goodbye â not only to the job, but to the city as well.
Today, with his wife and his dogs, Laursen resides in Brookville.
Itâs a far cry from the city life he has known for the past 52 years, but itâs a good fit for a man who has experienced his share of loss.
âIâm more than happy that Iâm here,â he said. âItâs a different life. Itâs good. Thereâs nothing better than having to watch the cows run by at 8 a.m. or having 2 1/2-acres of land for my dogs to run.â
He also keeps himself busy by performing private security work in DuBois and driving a school bus for the Punxsutawney Area School District.
âI love it here, I really do,â he said. âAnd I love kids. Driving a bus just seemed like a fun thing to do.â
Although itâs a far cry from the city life heâs known, no distance or time could erase Sept. 11, 2001 from his memory. To Laursen, his fellow 37 police officers killed in the line of duty, will be always honored and never be forgotten.
âWhen I saw that building and felt that anxiety, you hoped that you would have had the guts to do what you had to do,â he said. âThese guys did it. Whatever they happened to be doing at the moment.â
Every year, Laursen hoists his Trade Center flag into the sky to honor his fellow brothers like Reynolds. This year will be no different.
But because he is about five hours away from his fellow police officers, heâs afraid he wonât experience the same feeling of camaraderie.
âItâs a little harder around Sept. 11 because thereâs no one to share it with up here,â he said.
Heâs still unsure of how heâs going to spend his day Sunday, the 10th anniversary of 9/11; however, he is certain that he will spend the day remembering his fallen officers.
âI couldnât be more proud of these guys and what they did,â he said. âThe thing is, when everybody else was running out of the building, they ran in. That takes a special person.â