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White Plains Safety Commissioner Chong Recalls 9/11 at Ground Zero

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. -- A rumble came first. Then shakes jolted the Rector Street courthouse where David Chong, then-commander of New York City’s organized crime control bureau, was the highest ranking officer. Screams about a plane crash ushered Chong’s division towards the north World Trade Center tower. When Chong looked up from the intersection of Rector Street and West Street, a piece of an airplane loomed above, radiating heat down to the sidewalk where the White Plains Public Safety Commissioner stood.

For a while, police radios broadcasted nothing but mayhem on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

“I saw the building just light up like the top of a match and I got on the radio. It was the only thing I could think of to do,” said Chong, who worked for the New York City Police Department for over 22 years. “At that time, the entire radio system was probably overrun with police officers and firefighters calling for help. All I remember was the radio coming back and saying, ‘Can you repeat yourself.’ And I said, ‘It is a major airliner into the World Trade Center. I need every asset possible.”

After that, Chong says his instincts took over. “I observed people jumping out of buildings, which as a police officer, we are never prepared for. We see suicides, but this was something else. This was absolute pandemonium.”

First responders instructed people to run north, away from the tumbling bodies and building debris. Employees in the south tower were told to stay at their desks as police, firefighters, and emergency responders brought victims from the north tower to a makeshift triage center in the south tower.

“At that time, myself and all the first responders with me were thinking, ‘What a horrendous tragic accident.’ And, ‘how could an airline go off course and hit the World Trade Center?’” Chong recalls.

About 40 minutes later, Chong heard a familiar roar, but had trouble believing that he was seeing a second major, commercial airplane fly above a courtyard and directly towards the south tower. Several first responders, including Chong, rushed up to assist people.

“I helped a woman who was burnt very badly down the stairs. And she told me she had children. I told her all we had to do was make it out to the flashing lights on the street. That’s when the tower collapsed and I found myself underneath the southern tower,” he said.

Emergency rescue workers pulled Chong out of the crumbled south tower, which collapsed before the north tower tumbled. The woman did not make it out of the rubble.

“I was in the hospital for quite some time with some pretty serious injuries, which I don’t want to get into," Chong said. "It’s not about me. I survived. And I thank God that I survived, but I am also hurt deeply in my heart that so many people didn’t survive."

Nearly 3,000 died on 9/11, however, the actions of hundreds of emergency responders, like Chong, and untrained volunteers helped save approximately 100,000 more lives.

“As much as the horrors of that night will remain with me forever, the acts of bravery and the unselfish acts of common people that were side by side with us and worked hand in hand with us will remain with me. That’s something that will always make me proud to be an American,” said Chong.

A decade after planes toppled the twin towers, burying many of Chong’s friends and colleagues, the commissioner said it’s important to pay tribute to all Americans whose lives have been claimed in the decade-long fight against terrorism.

“I have had friends, I have had associates, and I know people that have lost children and loved ones in the fight against terrorism,” Chong said. “We can never forget—not only about the sacrifices that were made on Sept 11—but the sacrifices that were made by our military, the sacrifices that are made everyday by my colleagues who are dying of disease, the people who are dying every day of disease, and the people who are dying of heartbreak. We can never forget that they must be counted in the overall casualties,” said Chong.

While speaking at the "New York Remembers" exhibit in White Plains Sunday, Chong said the assassination of Osama bin Laden has allowed him to say that America has recovered.

"On Sept. 11, 2011, 10 years later, I can stand here, as a proud survivor and a public servant, and say, 'New York has recovered.' Lower Manhattan is more vibrant than ever. The Freedom Tower will be bigger than ever. America has recovered," said Chong. "More importantly the terrorist networks are on the run. The demon responsible has been brought to justice, by the best military force in the world."

Do you know anybody who helped out at ground zero? Are there any heroic stories you would like to share? Email thoughts to strangle@thedailywhiteplains.com.

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