A Fort Mill man who spent months sifting through toxic rubble at the World Trade Center site after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City, has died from an illness related to exposure at the site.
Paul John Johnson, a retired New York police officer, died July 22 at the age of 60 after being diagnosed with a lung disease afflicting thousands who breathed in that toxic air at Ground Zero. He leaves behind his wife Alexandria, 9 children and 19 grandchildren.
Dozens of officers from the New York Police Department who worked with Johnson, traveled to Fort Mill for Saturday’s funeral. They formed a line and saluted their former colleague’s casket, draped with the American flag.
Johnson was a member of the NYPD’s Emergency Service Unit and was one of the first responders to the site. He worked many hours looking for survivors and recovering bodies, said daughter Christy Nunoo.
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“He found a bravery in himself that most people didn’t have,” Nunoo told hundreds of guests at the funeral at Palmetto Funeral Home. “He risked his life every day to save the life of strangers.”
Nunoo said her father struggled to cope the first years after the terrorist attacks.
“He always had to be so strong and brave just like all the other police officers,” she said. “Some days he would come home and wake his children up, hold them and just cry. We knew those were the (victims) he couldn’t save.”
Nunoo said her father “would feel broken inside almost every night, but he would hit the reset button every morning and do it all over again.”
Johnson was injured from falling debris and had to retire in 2003, Nunoo said. That’s when he moved to Fort Mill.
Eight years ago, Johnson began having breathing problems. Doctors discovered he had an illness contracted from his work at the World Trade Center site.
Johnson’s daughter Sherianne Adelsberg said her father told her he would “do it all over again.”
“He gave his life for his country, for his city, for his brothers, for strangers,” she said.
One of Johnson’s sons, Frank Kennedy, said his father was “the most patriotic man I ever met.”
A few days after Sept. 11, 2001, Johnson “finally came home covered in white and I had never seen him cry so hard.”
Johnson’s NYPD partner Steven Hayden echoed his children’s sentiment that their father was hard-working.
Often workers at the World Trade Center site were exhausted, Hayden said. Johnson would fall asleep in the truck after filling it with debris while his partner drove.
The speakers at Johnson’s funeral all said he would teach them lessons and would never give up working hard. Even while sick, Johnson worked hard to stay alive for his family, Hayden said.
He always stayed positive, they said.
“He never saw obstacles, only speed bumps,” Kennedy said.
Johnson’s name will be added to first responders memorials in Long Island, Washington, D.C., and at the former World Trade Center site, Adelsberg said.