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When Lauren McIntyre was just 3, she knew exactly what she wanted for her birthday.
“She wanted to meet and talk to her father,” says retired Det. Thomas McHale, a Port Authority police officer like Lauren’s late dad, Donald. “What do you say to a 3-year-old who just wants to talk to her father?”
On September 11, 2001, Donald McIntyre ran into the South Tower of the World Trade Center to rescue those who were trapped inside. He was working an overtime shift to earn extra money for the family before his third child was born.
“I could only imagine how much courage someone could have to go into a situation like that,” says 14-year-old Lauren, who appeared on PEOPLE’s 2011 cover wearing a locket with her dad’s photo. “He didn’t have to go in. He did anyway. It’s beyond amazing.”
Lauren, whose father chose her name before her birth, was born two and a half months after 9/11. Her mom, Jeannine, wore a replica of Donald’s badge, number 1873, during her delivery. Today Lauren wears a necklace with that number.
For more on McIntyre and other Children of 9/11, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday
“I usually hold his necklace and I’ll say stuff and I know he’s listening,” says Lauren. “I’ll just talk and hope he hears me.”
“It’s little things when I miss my dad the most,” she says. “Like my friends’ dads will pick us up and I’ll be like, ‘Wow, I really wish I could have that.’ Or walking down the aisle, I think about that a lot. Or my kids having a grandpa.”
For her sister, Caitlyn, 20, who was five years old when their dad died, “It’s watching someone do a father-daughter dance or seeing a dad and his daughter play at the beach. You don’t realize what you have until it’s gone.”
The sisters have learned about their father from his fellow Port Authority Police Department officers, who have become surrogate dads to Donald’s three children, including older brother Donnie, 18. “He couldn’t wait for Lauren to come,” recalls Lt. Michael Hennessy. “Donnie’s family was everything to him.
“His kids are his legacy, his beautiful children, those are his jewels, his gold,” says Hennessey. “When you’re with them, you feel like you’re with him. The children are as beautiful as he was.”