Sunday, September 11, 2011

Remembering 9/11: Senior Chief Musician Paul Johnson

Senior Chief Musician Paul Johnson: I was assigned to two funerals at Arlington National Cemetery, at 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. On my way to the cemetery, I was listening to the radio, and the reports of the first plane crash in New York were just coming in as I was getting ready to take my position for the first ceremony. The details were still sketchy, and I was left wondering what had happened as I waited for the first funeral procession to arrive. After playing “Taps,” I drove to the other end of the cemetery (across the street from the Pentagon) to visit the washroom and [prepare for] the 10 a.m. service. I kept the radio tuned to the news station and learned of the second plane crash at the World Trade Center. In part because I couldn't believe what I was hearing, and partly because the details were unclear, I pictured that these were small planes, like Cessna trainers, that had [crashed accidentally].

At 9:37 a.m., I was sitting in my car when I heard the horrible sound of American Airlines Flight 77 as it screamed past under full throttle, buried itself into the southwest wall of the Pentagon and sent up a massive plume of red flame and black smoke. As the flames continued, [first responders] arrived on the scene from surrounding communities. Wondering what to do next, I drove to the visitor's center where I found the Chaplain who was to preside over the 10:00 a.m. ceremony, and I asked him what he was going to do. His response was calm: "I don't know about your schedule, chief, but I have a funeral to conduct in 10 minutes." I returned to the columbarium, and at 10:00 a.m. the procession arrived. With the wail of sirens, helicopters in the air and the huge plumes of flame and smoke billowing from the Pentagon just across the road, the chaplain performed the rites of burial, and at the usual moment, I rendered honors as I had done hundreds of times over the last ten years. After the flag was folded and the funeral was over, I went home.

Johnson is the Navy Band’s administrative chief.

No comments: