TYLER, Texas (KETK)- We’ve heard from eyewitnesses, heartbroken family members, and the voices of political leaders regarding the tragic events that led to a 20-year war. But what about the ones who brought you those stories? KETK News spoke to an East Texas radio personality who was at the U.S. Capitol and the Pentagon right after 9/11, recalling the moments that altered the course of American history.
Jeff Johnson is currently the Director of Operations for UT Tyler Radio. Back in 2001, Johnson was a Capitol Hill Bureau Chief Reporter for what was at the time, the only credentialed internet-only news service of the world: Cybernet News Service.
20 years later, inside UT Tyler’s radio station, Johnson shared his memories of reporting on one of the nation’s most life-altering stories of all time. From hearing the news of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center, to rushing to the Pentagon where he encountered the inescapable memories forever ingrained into his mind.
“Everybody thought it was an accident…that a small plane had crashed into the side of the building,” Johnson said.
Before he knew it, Johnson got word of a second plane crashing into the building. “I processed for a second and realize that there was smoke already coming out of the building, and I realized the second plane had hit the tower.” Johnson encountered this spine-chilling image through the screen, but heading to the Pentagon was an entirely different experience.
That day, Johnson was rushed to the Capitol and the Pentagon. What should’ve been a short journey, felt like years due to the chaos unfolding. Roads were blocked off, people were running, and fear continued to loom. Approaching the Pentagon, Johnson recalled a sight he’ll forever remember.
“This is one of those mental images that I won’t forget…To see this gaping hole in the side of the building and to see people running around. It was surreal. I just kind of stopped in time,” he said.
Johnson paused in his place as the world’s largest office building, home to the world’s most powerful military, symbolizing strength and defense, was itself under attack.
“I froze for several seconds, someone actually walked up to me and said if I was okay. I said, of course, I’m not okay, there’s a hole in the side of the Pentagon.”
However, Johnson was a journalist at his core and understood his role this day full of confusion, looming fear, and chaos.
“Unlike all the sane people who run away from the target, your job is to go toward it. And, it makes you question your sanity a little bit,” said Johnson.
He had to emotionally disconnect to relay crucial information to the American people.
Johnson recalled arriving home after the attacks, recognizing the eerie reminder of what had happened that day. Finally, he made it home at 1:30 a.m., Johnson was greeted by the sound of silence, something rare, as he lived right under a flight path. “There were always planes all the time. They were never quiet.” A sobering thought revealing the reality of that day. “So then I sat down on the couch and just cried. And probably cried me to sleep the next day.”
Two decades after the 9/11 attacks, Johnson also remembered the events of Pearl Harbor. He heard of the tragedy and stories left behind but said it was never tangible. Some young adults today weren’t even alive when the events unfolded. “It’s difficult to imagine that this happened 20 years ago. It’s difficult to imagine that there are adults alive today that weren’t alive when it happened,” said Johnson. As the nation exits a 20-year war in the Middle East, Johnson looks to the past for crucial lessons the nation must learn.
Moreover, the tragedy of 9/11 reminds us that life never offers any guarantees.