10 years after 9/11: Remember the jumpers
When the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred, Wesley Wong — a long-time agent in the FBI New York Office, and on that fateful day an Assistant Special Agent in Charge — awoke to an absolutely gorgeous day, never dreaming of what was to come.
When I spoke with Wes Wong during my stay here in New York City this weekend, he reminded me of one of the horrors often forgotten in the September 11th attacks...
Ninety Percent of Life
“On the way into our main office, I had stopped at one of our sites which was just north of the World Trade Center, and one of the guys in there said, ‘A small plane has flown into the World Trade Center.’ I thought he was pulling my chain so I said something like, ‘Yeah, right.’ He said, ‘No, my wife’s watching the local news and she just called me and said that a small plane has flown into the Trade Center’.”
Wong did not think this was a criminal act — he did not think it was a terrorist act.
Wong recounted, “I just thought, ‘Wow, this poor soul must have had a mechanical failure because it was so clear that day that the pilot had to see the World Trade Center. I just assumed that he couldn’t steer the plane because of a mechanical failure.”
Wong had no way of knowing that American Airlines Flight 11 had just slammed into the north face of the World Trade Center’s North Tower.
“I called the office, and they confirmed that a small plane had hit the tower. I said, ‘Listen, I’m just north of there, so I’m going to respond.’ I know it’s going to be an NTSB investigation — I don’t see any FBI violation — so I said, ‘If the city needs any FBI resources, I’ll be right there to call ‘em up.’ At this time I was in charge of our technical division in New York, and we had some communications and some evidence recovery resources, and I was just thinking in the back of my mind that maybe the city could use something like that.”
Woody Allen famously said, “Ninety percent of life is just showing up.”
Well, Wong “showed up” at the World Trade Center prior to the second airplane striking the South Tower — which had been the target of terrorists aboard United Flight 175 — and immediately encountered a firefighter setting up a perimeter.
“He asked me who I was with, and I told him, and he said, ‘You should go into the North Tower lobby — they’re setting up a command center. Then he said something to me that I just could not comprehend — and this is probably the most traumatic thing for me that day. As I walked away he said, ‘Watch out for the falling bodies’.”
As Wong made his way across West Street, he was thinking, ‘Falling bodies, what is he talking about?’
“I’m thinking, ‘It’s a fire. Firemen go up the stairwells, they bring people down, they put out the fire, and NTSB comes in and does the investigation.’ I didn’t realize that people had already started jumping at this point, and one had struck a first responder and they had both died.”
Wong crossed the street, and just as he got close to the building, that same firefighter shouted loudly from behind him, “Whoah! Here comes one!”
“I looked up, and I saw a guy coming out of that blue sky. He was spread eagled. He was in dress clothes. He had navy blue dress pants and a white shirt, a tie, dark hair, and he was spread eagle. I froze — I just stared up at this poor soul coming towards me — and then I realized he was coming right towards me.”
By this time, all the windows in the North Tower had been knocked out by a Port Authority police officer in order to facilitate access and egress by first responders — there simply was not enough room in those lobby doors to accommodate all the men and equipment pouring in, or to make way for the victims escaping the devastated area.
Wong was able to duck out of the way, diving into the lobby of the North Tower.
Until Gravity Pulled Them Apart
“That poor soul hit on the sidewalk right behind me, and I will tell you that it was the most God-awful sound that you could imagine.”
Wong added, ”After 9/11, a lot of us who were there that morning were asked, ‘What was the worst trauma for you?’ and everybody expects us to say, ‘It was the buildings collapsing.’ I think for most of us — if not all of us — it was the jumpers. You saw people up there in the open windows, and you knew they didn’t want to jump, but the heat was becoming so great I guess that they decided they couldn’t wait any longer. And they would jump out.”
Wong paused... and continued, “The hardest ones for me were the couples. There were couples that would get up in the windows and they would be holding hands and they would look at each other one last time, and they would leap out together. They would hold hands as long as they could, until gravity pulled them apart.”
Finding Father Judge
Wong continued into the North Tower, participating in the ensuing response wherein there were countless acts of heroism and daring escape from death. He was in the North Tower lobby when a firefighter raced in to repeatedly exclaim, ‘The South Tower’s been hit!’ He felt and heard a rumble as the South Tower collapsed. He dove into an alcove with about six or seven police officers and firefighters. He eventually paired up with a firefighter who bumped up to him in the darkness of dust and smoke.
“I’ll never forget this guy,” Wong recalled. “He said to me, ‘Don’t let go of my coat.”
Wong replied, “You’re my new best buddy, and I’m not lettin’ go.”
Wong and that group of firefighters were the men who found the very first listed victim of 9/11 — Father Mychal Judge, the beloved Chaplain of the FDNY. Photographs of the extraction of Father Judge remain seared in our memories.
Still, for Wong, another memory persists, as it does for so many of us. It’s not often spoken of, but it bears our concerted consideration — today, of all days.
“For me personally,” said Wong, “the toughest, the most difficult thing that day — the most traumatizing thing that day — was the jumpers.”
We Will Never Forget...
There are no other words but these: We... Will... Never... Forget...