Different circumstances, same reactions

Police chiefs recall moment they knew they’d never forget

By ELIOT DUKE
Of the Record staff
Posted 9/10/21

Dunn Chief of Police Clark White and Erwin’s police chief Jonathan Johnson experienced 9/11 from very different perspectives. 

As planes started smashing into the World Trade Center and …

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Different circumstances, same reactions

Police chiefs recall moment they knew they’d never forget

Posted

Dunn Chief of Police Clark White and Erwin’s police chief Jonathan Johnson experienced 9/11 from very different perspectives. 

As planes started smashing into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, White found himself in the middle of the chaos. White worked executive protection for then-North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley, who, like President George W. Bush, was traveling at the time of the worst terrorist attack in United States history. With so much confusion surrounding the day’s events, being in such a role hit close to home. 

“It really had a huge impact for us,” White said. “I remember the president was away from the White House when he was notified and we were traveling with the governor when he was notified. It really brought a heightened sense for people working executive protection for dignitaries. I can remember the devastating impact it had on the entire nation and how vulnerable the United States felt after realizing the type of attack on our own soil.”

At the same time, Johnson, a 15-year-old sophomore at South Johnston High School, watched with the rest of the world as the tragedy unfolded. Already planning on going into public service, Johnson ­— then a cadet on the local rescue squad — looked on as images of first responders running toward burning buildings resonated in his mind. 

“It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years,” said Johnson. “It’s still a day that will be remembered forever in the United States. You go back and see that all the videos that’s been shown are of first responders running towards the danger. We still do that to this day. We need to take the day to remember the ones that were lost and remember all the heroes who responded that day to help.”

White’s career continued in the years following the attack, but memories of the day remained. Saturday’s anniversary, White said, is an opportunity for Americans to remember the events of 9/11 and appreciate the freedoms and security that come with living in the United States. 

“I think about how quickly people forget and how much they take for granted,” White said. “I truly hope nobody ever forgets what happened on that day and they don’t ever take our freedom and our safety in this nation for granted. That’s a mistake.”

Johnson always wanted to serve his community and entered basic law enforcement training as soon as he could. Seeing the sacrifices being made by first responders on Sept. 11 only cemented Johnson’s plans for the future. 

“It probably did have somewhat of an impact,” said Johnson. “I may not have known how big of an impact at the moment. I always felt like helping people and seeing that and all the people who died that day, all the first responders, going into the unknown, it didn’t stop them. They were doing what they had to do and unfortunately a lot of them never went home.”

White already knew about the sacrifices and risks first responders face on a daily basis, having forged a successful career in law enforcement. Fire stations and police departments become more than just buildings to the people who work inside them; they are a home away from home. Oftentimes police officers and firefighters spend more time with co-workers than their own family, and a loss by one is felt by all. As the events of 9/11 unfolded on TV sets in real time, White said the rest of the country shared in the collective grief among the first responder community.  

“On a personal basis, it kind of solidified my purpose and my career and what I had stood for for all those years,” White said. “Every single law enforcement officer in this nation felt the same thing I felt that day. It maybe just brought some of the dangers involved with the job to the forefront for people to see. When they actually saw what was going on and how many police officers and firefighters lost their lives in that one event, I think it kind of woke them up to some of the dangers that are involved with this job on a daily basis.”

Johnson thought about joining the military after 9/11 but decided to stay the course and pursue community service. Sept. 11 showed the country that when someone calls for help, first responders answer, regardless of the circumstances or dangers. 

“We do that every day,” said Johnson. “It’s not as big an event as that, but when people call 911, we’re always going to go.”      

As Saturday approaches, the world finds itself in growing turmoil. The Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan, China continues pushing forward with expansion and the United States experienced a summer full of discontent in 2020. White said Americans should avoid complacency in a time of such instability.  

“It’s just crazy it’s been 20 years,” White said. “That’s why it’s so important to remind people. We are creatures of comfort in the United States and we have a tendency to slip right back into the old habits if we’re not careful. 

“Sure, I’m concerned about [Afghanistan]. I’m concerned about security worldwide. We have conflicts everywhere in the world and it seems like they’re popping off more than ever. We’ve got be mindful and stay vigilant.” 

White and Johnson may have experienced Sept. 11 differently but the sorrow of the day resonated the same. The two, like many first responders, share a similar sentiment — never forget.   

Eliot Duke can be reached at 910-230-2038 or eduke@mydailyrecord.com.

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