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JOHN LAURSEN: A retired NY/NJ Port Authority police officer faces the horrors of the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks

September 9, 2011

John Laursen, a retired police officer for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, displays some of his gear from the job and a piece commemorating his co-workers lost in the attacks of the World Trade Center. (Photo by Natalie Bruzda)

BROOKVILLE — 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 didn’t expect what was handed to it that morning.

The kind of sky that didn’t 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, it’s what John Laursen remembers most.

“The sky ... it was a beautiful, beautiful, blue sky, and I’ll never forget it,” he said.

Laursen’s 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.

“When I went to bed, it was nice, everything was beautiful,” he said. “I woke up to a different world.”

A police officer for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey — and now a Brookville resident who works in DuBois and Punxsutawney — Laursen would have been one of the first to enter to the World Trade Center buildings Sept. 11, 2001.

Although he wasn’t, many other police officers from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey were.

“My first feeling when the towers were down was that we lost a lot of guys,” Laursen said.

And they did. Thirty-seven to be exact.

But because the attacks knocked out cellular communications, he wasn’t one of those 37; when he woke up, the second tower had already fallen.

“I thank God every day I fell asleep that morning because you kind of know where you go and who you work with,” he said. “If I’d have gone in, all of the guys I would have been with aren’t here anymore.”

Stevie Huczko, Laursen’s 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.

“They didn’t make it out, so I knew that I wouldn’t have made it out,” 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 authority’s senior management.

“The 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,” Laursen said.

Today, just as he did that morning, he’s still feeling the loss.

“When I turned on the TV, I just saw the devastation,” he said. “And I’m 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.”

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.

“With my foot to the floor, I hit the highway,” Laursen said. “But there was nobody on the road. It was empty. Dead. And the whole time, I’m just watching the sky. The blue, blue sky. But as I got closer, it started to stain, and I started to see the brown.”

By the time Laursen arrived at the airport, he could see the plume of smoke rising out of the sky.

“It was eerie and gorgeous,” he said. “I kind of parked the car, took a deep breath, and walked in.”

He didn’t return home for three days.

• • •

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. 

“You couldn’t even recognize where you were,” he said. “When you walked in there, you couldn’t recognize anything.”

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.

“I just did what I was asked to do those days,” he said. “I’m not a hero. These guys did everything.”

And that’s 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 Laursen’s fellow Port Authority police officers.

“The loss of life was great, but it’s also the single-greatest rescue ever in history,” Laursen said. “They 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.”

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.

“She saved thousands of people by taking out that window,” he said. “Thousands would have been caught in that lobby.”

That first night stretched into an eternity for Laursen, and in some ways, it hasn’t ended.

“The emotional toll — that was the big thing,” he said.

• • •

Thirty-seven funerals and continuous 12-hour tours do not go together very well.

“The whole job — 12 on, 12 off … you just worked, went to bed. We didn’t even have a chance to grieve,” Laursen said. “We had 37 funerals to go to and you couldn’t even get time off to go to them.”

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.

“The stress counselors said, ‘Don’t apologize for anything,’” he said. “Whatever it takes for you to get through this, that’s what you’ve got to do.”

And for the most part, it simply took encouragement from his fellow officers.

“The guys I worked with, we dragged each other through it,” he said. “Everybody just kind of worked together and we carried each other through. And those guys that I worked with through that, I’ll never be as close to anybody again. We just leaned on each other.”

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.

“Up at Ground Zero, you’d see people on the side of the road, waving American flags, clapping,” Laursen said. People don’t 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.”

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.

“Everybody was trying to hold on,” Laursen said. “Everybody was hoping to get a body. And when it became obvious that they weren’t getting a body, they held memorial services.” 

The counselors advised Laursen to worry about himself, but with two young kids at home, and a wife-to-be, that wasn’t always a luxury.

“Your family suffers because you’re not there,” he said. “And even if you’re home, you’re 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, ‘All we deal with is death.’”

But even with this grim outlook, there was a light at the end of the tunnel.

Some of that light came from Laursen’s faith.

“Church — it’s where I wanted to go,” he said. “Sept. 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.”

The airport’s chaplain was also instrumental in Laursen’s healing process.

“Our chaplain, Father Dave, would have us go out on the floor for a while and hold hands,” he said. “We would cry for a few minutes but then we would say ‘OK, we’re good’ let’s do this again.’”

• • •

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 — not only to the job, but to the city as well.

Today, with his wife and his dogs, Laursen resides in Brookville.

It’s a far cry from the city life he has known for the past 52 years, but it’s a good fit for a man who has experienced his share of loss.

“I’m more than happy that I’m here,” he said. “It’s a different life. It’s good. There’s 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.”

He also keeps himself busy by performing private security work in DuBois and driving a school bus for the Punxsutawney Area School District.

“I love it here, I really do,” he said. “And I love kids. Driving a bus just seemed like a fun thing to do.”

Although it’s a far cry from the city life he’s 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.

“When I saw that building and felt that anxiety, you hoped that you would have had the guts to do what you had to do,” he said. “These guys did it. Whatever they happened to be doing at the moment.”

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, he’s afraid he won’t experience the same feeling of camaraderie.

“It’s a little harder around Sept. 11 because there’s no one to share it with up here,” he said.

He’s still unsure of how he’s 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.

“I couldn’t be more proud of these guys and what they did,” he said. “The thing is, when everybody else was running out of the building, they ran in. That takes a special person.”

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