Lab employees see 9/11 through a first responder's eyes

Aug. 31, 2011

Wesley Wong Photo by Jacqueline McBride/PAO (Download Image)

Lab employees see 9/11 through a first responder's eyes

Wrapped in eerie silence, Wesley Wong huddled with a group of first responders, trapped in total darkness in an alcove in the lobby of the north tower of the World Trade Center. Suddenly, the silence was broken as radios came to life with calls for help from firefighters and officers trapped in the rubble of the south tower. Lab employees heard this story and many others Wednesday as retired Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Wong spoke about his 9/11 personal experience.

With the 10th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center nearing, Deputy Director Tom Gioconda introduced Wong to the crowd and asked for each to remember where they were that day. With those memories at the forefront of the audience's minds, Wong took the stage to share his own recollections of that sunny September day.

Appointed a special agent in 1976, Wong's career was centered at the FBI's New York Office (NYO). Over the years, his responsibilities included investigations of organized crime and Asian gang issues, foreign counter-intelligence matters and oversight of the NYO's information systems, Evidence Response Team, electronic technicians, Scuba Recovery Team and electronic surveillance program. However, Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, found Wong taking on a new role -- that of the senior FBI on-scene commander at ground zero.

"This is not a primer on fire and rescue. I'm not here to talk about the FBI, and I'm not here to talk about myself," Wong said to the crowd. "I made a promise -- that if I could do something to keep the memories of those we lost alive, I would do it. That is where this presentation came from." Wong opened his talk with a poignant presentation showing New York City before, during and after the attack. He shared personal stories of his relationships with FBI agents that lost their lives that day, bringing them to life for the crowd. He then began tracing his own experience, beginning with his arrival at the World Trade Center to offer FBI support to what was thought to be a small airplane accident but was quickly revealed, by the impact of a second plane, to be a calculated attack.

Speaking to a visibly moved crowd, Wong shared his memories of being trapped in an alcove of the north tower lobby with a group of firefighters. Just as they started to lose hope of survival, a voice in the darkness led them out. Sadly, as they moved toward that voice, they discovered Father Mychal Judge, who would become the first listed victim of 9/11. Officers carefully carried him out of the tower and into history -- a photograph of that solemn procession would become one of the most iconic images from 9/11.

As they turned to reenter the building, the mandate came to remove all personnel, shortly followed by the second ominous rumbling of the day. As Wong looked up, he could see the top of the north tower implode. He turned and ran for his life. As the tower fell, "Day turned to night," he said. According to Wong, it wasn't until the next day, when he arrived at ground zero to see an eight-story pile of rubble in the towers' footprints, swarmed with emergency personnel searching for survivors, that emotion overtook him. As he and hundreds of others dealt with the aftermath of the attacks, several months of seven-day workweeks would pass before that emotion caught up with him again.

Two-thirds of the initial command center that he joined when he arrived that day perished, and he asked himself why he survived when they didn't. Wong knows he will never answer that question, so he honors their memory and the memory of all lost that day with a personal vigil each year on Sept. 11.

Wrapping up the presentation to a standing ovation, Gioconda's remarks echoed what many in the crowd felt. "You were a special agent, but also an agent of change," he told Wong. "And you have changed all of us today."

To see the broadcast of Wong's presentation, click here .