As each anniversary approaches, it’s hard for any American to escape the images of the horrors that played out on 9/11/01. Even 17 years later, for those that lived through that day and lost loved ones and coworkers, finding some measure of personal peace during this time can be a hurdle of epic proportions. One person who is helping countless individuals turn that corner is Brothers Before Others partner, Laurie Tietjen, who founded and heads the Kenneth Tietjen Memorial Foundation.
Port Authority Police Officer Kenneth Tietjen, who was assigned to the Holland Tunnel Command as well as the PATH Command, was killed on 9/11 along with 36 other Port Authority Police Officers. Laurie has run the foundation in her brother’s name, immersing herself in charity work that has impacted so many families, both within the law enforcement community and outside of it.
However, until relatively recently, Laurie too was one of those millions of American’s who found each anniversary of 9/11 to be a reopening of a wound that would never heal. With some of the same determination that she has approached every venture she has set out on, Laurie refused to perpetuate the mourning one more day. Instead, Laurie wanted to spend each 9/11 anniversary in the same manner as she does every other day her life: celebrating her brother’s life and those he impacted, as well as being grateful for both his sacrifice and the sacrifices that continue to be made by those he worked with.
As such, a few years back, with the help of the Port Authority Police Holland Tunnel Command and recently Brothers Before Others, Laurie has turned 9/11 into something so much more than a day of remembrance.
Each year, through her foundation and with the help of some of amazing and supportive people in her life, Laurie spends every 9/11 anniversary traveling to police commands, stations and fire houses with the sole purpose of simply saying ‘thank you’. At each stop, Laurie hand delivers food and drinks, supplied by the foundation and, in some cases, donated by others. While the concept seems simple, much like we’ve seen within other charities and our own, a simple break from reality and the restoration of some form of normalcy can be exactly what the doctor ordered.
Most times, Laurie will start the day hosting a BBQ at the PAPD Holland Tunnel Command. On average, the BBQ is attended by over 100 Holland Tunnel employees and their families, both sworn and civilian, and many who knew Kenny when he worked there. For Laurie, it is important that ‘never forget’ is not simply rhetoric; and to see the family that gathers in her brother’s name and in honor of those that were lost, is a tangible sign of the work she is doing. More importantly, the BBQ represents, to her, a turning of a corner. While the loss of her brother is a void that will never be filled, what she has created is more of an environment of healing as a family.
After spending time at the Holland Tunnel, often accompanied by Port Authority Police Officers and members of Brothers Before Others, Laurie and her band of ‘Robin Hoods’ then travel around New York City, visiting NYPD precincts and FDNY firehouses.
This year, Laurie was honored to be joined BBO member/partner and Philadelphia Police Officer Jonny Castro. Jonny, who serves the Philadelphia Police Department as their forensic sketch artist, has been doing one of a kind portraits of American heroes since 2016 and the one year anniversary of the line of duty death of Philadelphia Police Officer Robert Wilson III. To date, all on his own time and with own money, Jonny has done hundreds of these portraits.
In honor of the day, Jonny asked if he could join Laurie and recognize two heroes that were lost as a result of 9/11.
First, Jonny had completed a portrait of FDNY Ray Pfeifer. Ray, who died at the age of 59 as a result of cancer stemming from his time spent digging through the toxic debris that was Ground Zero. However, as the saying goes, it was how Ray lived that made him a hero. During his time following 9/11, Ray became a champion for the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, named in honor of NYPD Detective James Zadroga and supplying benefits to those suffering from 9/11 related illnesses. Even as his own personal condition worsened, Ray would travel around the country and Washington DC, lobbying for extensions and more accommodation. As such, in the presence of his friends, family and coworkers at FDNY Engine 40/Ladder 35, Jonny presented his portrait to Ray’s family, as well as to his close friend and partner in his fight, Jon Stewart.
Next, Jonny created a portrait to honor NYPD Police Officer Moira Smith. A 13 year veteran of the force, and after evacuating numerous injured from the WTC towers, displaying outward confidence and calm, Moira was last seen heading back into the South Tower to try and save more. Joined by her coworkers assigned to the NYPD 13th PCT and NYPD PBA representatives, Jonny presented his canvas to the precinct.
Other stops along the way included the Port Authority Police Bus Terminal Command, FDNY Engine 24/Ladder 5, NYPD 1st PCT and the World Trade Center Plaza. At each stop, Laurie and her friends, which included Valeri and Pamela Webb (Daughter and granddaughter of Port Authority Police Officer Nathaniel Webb also killed on 9/11), addressed the police officers and firemen, thanked them for their continued service and sacrifice and even served them food.
During BBO’s last visit to Cleveland a few months back, Cleveland PD Captain Keith Sulzer Sid something that has resonated with the members of BBO: “Never underestimate the power of you have as an individual to change the course of someone’s life”. Never has this been more true in the work being done by Laurie and her foundation; and never has it been more personal to this group.
Brothers Before Others founder/President Michael Burke served the City of New York as a police officer; a career that saw both the 1993 WTC bombing and the attacks of 9/11. Since that day and the recovery period that followed, Michael has been personally unable to return to the World Trade Center. In a recent reflective piece about 9/11 and the World Trade Center that he wrote for Blue Magazine, Michael closed with: “You see, I’ve learned that your rise and fall and rise again embody who I am – a fighter, never quitting and uniting departments and cities. For this and all the rest, I owe you to come back. Maybe someday.”
Supported by Laurie and inspired by the work she is doing, this year, Michael made good on that promise. Not only did Michael accompany the group to all of the above listed stops, he also joined them at the WTC plaza for his first time back, where flowers were placed by the names of the police officers lost that day, including PO Tietjen and PO Webb.
Whether it’s 9/11 related or otherwise, grief effects everyone differently and is often a weight that often times can be disabling. There is no set time table for how it is processed and getting passed it is not something someone can simply be told to do. However, with people like Laurie serving as an example and as support, there is always a light at the end of the tunnel for those who are still in it’s grasp. If you find yourself still in that position, stay in the fight. Please use those around you and those who share your experiences as support. No matter how individual your stress and grief may seem, someone is always walking that road with you. In honor of those you have lost and in your time, as Michael stated, “For this and the rest, I owe you to come back. Maybe someday.”
For More on Ray Pfeifer and the Ray Pfeifer Foundation:
For More on the Kenneth Tietjen Memorial Foundation:
For a Reflective Piece on Police Office Moira Smith:
*A full catalogue of Jonny Castro’s work can be found on both FB and Instagram by searching “Jonny Castro Art”