“History does not long entrust the care of freedom to the weak or the timid,” the late President Dwight Eisenhower said at his inaugural address in 1953.
It was a quote Scott Johnson, retired Bedford County Emergency Management Agency director, used as he recounted his 9/11 experience while working as an Air Force special agent at Andrews Air Force Base.
The first Boeing 767 plane struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:26 a.m. Johnson said he was watching the TV in his office by the time the second plane hit the South Tower at 9:03 a.m...
“Since we were terrorism investigators, we knew right away what happened,” Johnson said. The Pentagon was then hit at 9:37 a.m.
“You could smell the smoke from the Pentagon from where we were.”
As someone who’s always had an interest in public safety, Johnson said instincts kicked in and everybody just “did their job.”
At the time, Johnson’s responsibility was to help put together a forensics team to “gather evidence” and work with the FBI at the Pentagon.
They set up a command post at the headquarters for the agency where they received calls for several other terrorist attacks reported throughout D.C. All of them, thankfully, proved false, Johnson said. But it was an overload of information to sift through.
Vigilance against vigilance
It was a couple days later when the full impact of Sept. 11, 2001, hit.
“It’s important that the lessons are learned — on watching people jump out of the Twin Towers and die because they don’t want to burn up — that should be vivid in everyone’s memory because that shows how evil those people are who are after us,” he said.
Johnson was eventually assigned to the terrorism task force where he dealt with interrogations and with people who were captured in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay — locations Johnson has traveled to.
“We would rather fight an away game than a home game. We’d rather take it to them than them bring it to us. And they brought it to us big time that day,” he explained.
Due to a cancelled meeting, Johnson did not have to be in the Pentagon that day and was able to relay his safety to his wife and kids through the busy telephone lines. But Johnson recalled that many students at the Northern Virginia school his kids were attending at that time got the news their parents had perished at the Pentagon.
“It’s a dangerous place as ever... And it still will be 20 years from now. With those that will harm, they are very persistent, and they will never stop,” he said. “We have to fight back, we have to stay vigilant...”
David Kitchens, the current director of EMA in Bedford, was a police officer in Nashville during the 9-11 attacks. And like many that day, he experienced disbelief.
Not knowing what was going to happen or what was happening, he and other officers were assigned to critical infrastructures and high-profile areas in Nashville to patrol to watch the home front, Kitchens said.
Encouraged by friends and his desire to help folks, Kitchens became a police officer in 1991. He then left police and went to Tennessee Emergency Management Agency with the same mentality of helping folks.
“My time in the public is, I want to be out there to help with problems, help with disasters, help with things going on for the betterment of folks,” he said.
And then when 9-11 happened, that desire opened up beyond Nashville.
“It opened my eyes up to what it’s truly like out there, or what it could really be like. That event opened my eyes up to a whole new idea that it is not where you are at that you have problems, it’s all over that has problems. And others from other places can bring that to you,” he said.
So, it becomes an “everybody problem.”
Kitchens adds, “It’s important to remind folks, that anytime, harm can come their way. It was 20 years ago, but age has not changed that.”
But even as threats — both domestic and abroad — remain unpredictable, one thing is for certain: we have thousands of the best law enforcement and first responders in this country ready to guard citizens no matter how large the threat may be. And it’s because of who they are.