Local bishop on running 9/11 morgue: 'It was heaven and hell'

Shepherdsville Bishop reflects on 9/11

SHEPHERDSVILLE, Ky. (WHAS11) – Sunday marks the 15th anniversary of the nation’s worst terror attack. In the days, weeks, and months following 9/11, countless stories of courage and compassion emerged. That includes Dan Johnson. The local bishop leads the Heart of Fire Church in Shepherdsville. He also ran the morgue at Ground Zero.

“September 10th, I was so excited to be a part of a group of people that were trying to bring world peace and to plan and be a part of the planning committee for the International Prayer for World Peace,” Johnson said.

For the better part of two years, Johnson split his time between Manhattan and Kentucky. He and other religious leaders were planning a first of its kind event they hoped would change the world. That was supposed to happen September 22, 2001. 9/11 changed the world, just in a dramatically different way. 

“The morning of 9/11, I had flown in and the first thing I really did was look out over the skyline. It was just a beautiful day that day. I actually always asked for a room where I could see the Twin Towers and see the Manhattan skyline,” Johnson said.

His wife called him from Kentucky to ask if he was safe. She’d heard on the radio that a plane had crashed into a building in New York City. Johnson knew nothing about it, but went to his hotel window at the New Yorker after he could hear the radio in the background saying a plane had crashed into the Twin Towers.

“I rushed to another window and I was looking and sure enough, you could tell there was smoke coming out of the towers,” Johnson said. “I was sitting there watching as the tower was burning and then all of the sudden, you could see people jumping from the tower, things falling. I watched the second plane bank and hit Tower 1, and I knew as the rest of the world knew that we were under attack and that the world would never be the same.”

While others had to get as far away as Ground Zero as possible, Johnson was called to go right to the middle of it all.

“There at Brooks Brothers, I opened the morgue. The military brought 50,000 body bags and that clothing store with all of the fine wares that they had was all shoved out to the side and out of the way,” Johnson said. “That day, as everything else was other than life, people being alive, nothing else was important. A beautiful day that turned into something that no horror film or movie could ever produce. That day, there was really no separation of gender. Men and women worked side by side. There was no separation of race. People just truly loved each other and wanted to help.”

Johnson admits he was never a bishop who enjoyed funerals, often trying to avoid them at all costs.

“I hate death. I hate to see death. I’ve tried to avoid the ugliness of what I saw in death,” Johnson said. “It ends up I’ve probably done more funerals than any other preacher in America, so I’ve heard. It’s not something I want to be number one at.”

Johnson has a collection of pictures from the days and months that followed, but it's the ones that aren't printed out that still haunt him.

“It’s those kinds of pictures that play out in my mind over and over,” Johnson said. “It looked like nighttime whether it was night or day, and we worked 24 hours a day non-stop. There were no days. There were no hours. It was just continual work.  One of the officers asked what do you want us to do, and I received the body and laid it on the steel table on the gurney and I said that’ll be all. Not really understanding what they were asking, but what they were asking for was somebody to know what to do. The pictures that play out in my mind are firemen, a father that spent days and days looking for his son. They found his son. He had had a hip replacement and he was so burned and mangled they couldn’t really tell. But, they identified his surgeries. They identified his hip replacement. The father and his other son and I went in together and they held in their hands what was the remains of his son. There’s sounds. There’s smells. There’s tastes. All the natural senses that can just spur anything and call those memories back to mind.”

Johnson said he witnessed the best of humanity shining through the worst.

“It was heaven, and it was hell. It was both. It was heaven in the middle of a hell,” Johnson said. “9/11 changed our world. There’s some heaven that we need to get back from that day and from those days that followed and God help us to not ever have to face the hell again.”

Johnson's work continued for months, but his experience changed him forever.

“People have never been so beautiful to me as they have after 9/11.  It makes you look at life different,” Johnson said. “You realize every day, there’s no one guaranteed the next breath. It made that very real. It sure makes me very thankful for every day. I get up and I look at the sun. Even if it’s a cloudy day, it’s a beautiful day and there’s no such thing as a bad day. All of them are good. When you’re there for people that are hurting, they’ll remember you forever.”

15 years have passed, but the loss of life continues with more than a hundred 9/11 first responders dying every year. Many were Johnson's friends, and he shares his story because they can longer share theirs.

“They are the American heroes, to me. I don’t want them to be forgotten,” Johnson said.
Johnson is sharing more of his story this Sunday, September 11 outside the Bullitt County Courthouse at 250 Frank Simon Street. The special 9/11 memorial service is titled: “Praise, Prayer, & Patriotism.” It runs from 2:00-5:00 p.m.

“If there’s anything to remember on 9/11 every year, is one nation under God, one people that are one,” Johnson said.

Johnson is also running for state representative for the 49th District because of his experience after 9/11. He said he never imagined he'd get into politics, but feels called to do everything he can to make sure an attack like 9/11 never happens again.


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