Today, John Blauvelt lives on a horse ranch in Larkin Valley north of Watsonville with his wife and their menagerie of rescued animals.
The property is a five-minute drive down a potholed road, remote enough that they can get only dial-up Internet.
It’s a far cry from where Blauvelt came from.
“If you would have asked me 15 years ago if I’d be living in California, I’d tell you you’re crazy,” the 62-year-old CPA and native New Yorker said over breakfast at the Cadillac Cafe in Corralitos.
Dressed in a denim shirt, a black vest embroidered with "Cowboy Hardware/Too Tough to Die" and a white cowboy hat, Blauvelt greeted the waitress by her first name and didn't have to order. He comes here once a week, and she knows his usual, down to his chunky-over-spicy salsa preference.
A decade ago, Blauvelt was the director of taxes for Mercer Consulting Group, a subsidiary of Marsh & McLennan Companies—that’s MMC on the stock exchange—and his office was on the 40th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center.
On Sept. 11, 2011, Blauvelt was at work, along with a secretary. The rest of his 10-member team had yet to get to the office when the terrorist attack happened.
“I heard the first plane come in,” Blauvelt said, explaining that small planes often buzzed near the World Trade Center. “I didn’t think it was a huge passenger plane that would hit us.”
Blauvelt’s office was on the north side of the second tower—the first tower to fall, he noted—so he didn’t see the dramatic, fiery impact when Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower. He said an announcement in the South Tower advised people not to worry; he thought otherwise.
Then the second plane, Flight 175, struck the South Tower between floors 77 and 85.
He speaks about the experience calmly, pausing to sip from his mug of black coffee.
“I felt it when it hit,” Blauvelt said. “The worst I saw was smoke in our hallways.”
Blauvelt swept his company’s offices on the 40th floor and found the secretary hiding under a desk. He forced the terrified woman to evacuate with him, and when she told him to go ahead because she walked too slowly, he told her he’d sooner carry her than leave her behind.
Exiting the second tower “wasn’t chaotic,” Blauvelt said. The police "kept directing us, get out, get away from the building.”
He and the secretary went to city hall, a few blocks away, then took a subway uptown. He sent the secretary home and went to Mercer Consulting Group’s main office, where he spent the rest of the day trying to track down his other employees. Late in the day, he was able to reach one of his daughters, then living in Portland, OR, to tell her he was OK.
MMC, his parent company, lost 300 employees in the North Tower. One, an Irishman, was a good friend of Blauvelt’s. Blauvelt toasts him every St. Patrick’s Day and says he knows he was lucky to walk out of his own office unscathed.
“It gives you a new appreciation for life,” he said. “You can’t regret anything.”
About two years after the Twin Towers fell, Blauvelt was forced to retire. The personnel losses his company suffered led to consolidation, and he was close to retirement age, so he took a buyout.
That’s when he and his now-wife, Ann Fay, decided it was time to move West.
Blauvelt and Fay had met while on vacation at a Wyoming ranch in 1999. She never really took to New Jersey’s muggy weather, and Blauvelt had noticed his New Jersey town was changing more than he cared for, with big box stores and too many strangers.
Fay still owned property and horses in Aptos, so they landed in California. That was January 2004. They bought the Larkin Valley ranch that fall and, four years ago, married.
Blauvelt said he misses the East Coast sometimes: the warm Atlantic Ocean beaches and his favorite New York City restaurants.
But Watsonville is home now. He and Fay have three dogs, a cat and seven horses—only two of which the couple actually paid money for—out on the ranch. When Blauvelt first moved out, he tried to find work but was overqualified for a lot of jobs. Instead, he volunteers at the equestrian events at the fairgrounds and delivers Grey Bears meals to his neighbors.
Blauvelt has been back to Ground Zero once, and on Sunday will be center stage at . But he said doesn’t dwell on the events of Sept. 11.
“It don’t think about it too much; it doesn’t control my life,” he said. “If you let this incident control your life, the terrorists have won.”