“I’ll never forget when the first tower came down,” said Laurie Tietjen. “Everybody started crying and I said, ‘Oh my God, those poor families,’ and about a half an hour later I learned we were one of the families.”
When Port Authority Police Officer Ken Tietjen learned the first tower was hit, he raced down to the World Trade Center to help save lives. In doing so, he lost his own life on Sept. 11, 2001.
“You think there’s no way, what are the chances your brother, my brother, could be killed by a terrorist? You think it’s never going to happen, so at the beginning there was a lot of hope,” Laurie, Ken’s sister, said. “I made the decision to go down to ground zero the next day, and once I went down there and saw what it looked like — it looked like a war zone. There were fires everywhere, it was unbelievable. Once I went down there and saw that, I knew that he wasn’t coming home.”
He was just 31 years old. Kenny is one of 37 Middletown residents who lost their lives in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. They are all honored at the Middletown World Trade Center Memorial Gardens.
“The location is especially poignant as it’s close to the train station. They took the train everyday. The next day their cars were still here at the train station, so we felt it most fitting to locate a memorial in a quiet, serene area close to the train station that they took every day back and forth to work as a remembrance to them and their families,” said Middletown Mayor Kevin Settembrino.
The memorial gardens first opened to the public on Sept. 11, 2003. The construction was made possible largely through donations, and each resident is honored with a personalized memorial.
“We want people to remember and never forget everyone that we’ve lost here in Middletown,” Settembrino said. “We want to be able to maintain Middletown as their home forever so that their faces and their names are emblazoned in each one of the monuments as a tribute to how they made Middletown a better place.”
It’s where Laurie visits often.
“Some days it feels like it was yesterday, and other days it feels like forever, but how can you not be proud of him,” she said. “One of the questions that sort of plagued me, and I asked his partner, was, was he afraid? And he said, ‘not for a second.'”
Ken carried a man out of the tower. He met Laurie’s family soon after the attacks.
“He said the only thing he remembers is seeing my brother’s name tag, and he said he looked at the newspapers every day to see if my brother had survived. And when he found out he didn’t, he felt the need to come to the wake,” Laurie said. “What an incredible gift for him to give to us.”
Soon after Ken’s death, the family began receiving donations from strangers all across the country, so they decided to start a nonprofit in his name. The Ken Tietjen Memorial Foundation delivers bikes and toys to kids in need because that’s what Ken used to do. Over the years the organization has grown, and now Laurie and other volunteers bring miniature therapy horses to hospitals for kids and veterans. Each year they also raise thousands of dollars for children in need and families of first responders.
For Laurie and volunteers like his colleagues, it’s a way to give back and honor Kenny’s life.
“I guess the best thing I’ve learned is, wake up every day and do something, even if it’s small, to make your loved one proud. And I think that’s what gets me through,” Laurie said.