Doug Fender was in a break from an administrative meeting at FBI headquarters in Washington D.C. when he looked out of an eighth-floor window and saw smoke lifting from the horizon. He didn’t know until seconds later that he was looking toward Pentagon City.
“I had been in enough bombed-out buildings to know that something was not right, and that we needed to get out of there,” Fender said.
At that point, Fender and the others attending the meeting did not know about the circumstances unfolding in New York City that September day. They only knew that an airplane had flown into the World Trade Center.
After observing from a distance the smoke rising from the Pentagon, Fender, an agent and bomb technician for the FBI, ran downstairs in the agency’s headquarters to the Bomb Data Center to read “the intelligence being given to us at that point,” he said. “At first, intelligence was saying that maybe a dozen or so planes had been hijacked. Then a guy came into the room and said a plane was inbound about 15 to 20 minutes away. It was going to hit either here, the Capitol building or the White House.”
Moments later, Fender was given instructions to move to an undisclosed location. He drove out of Washington, literally driving on sidewalks as people flooded the streets and fighter jets scrambled overhead. “I got out of D.C. as quickly as I could,” he said. “I thought this could be the end of the world. That was probably one of the scariest moments of my life.”
Fender’s job leads him to many places and circumstances where danger is just a tick away. The Southwest Virginia native has been an FBI agent for nearly 20 years, and became interested in training to be a bomb tech while investigating and working on-scene following the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
However, every work day does not involve bombs. “I’m a regular agent also,” Fender said. He can be assigned to any criminal case that falls under the FBI’s jurisdiction, including “terrorism, bank robberies, kidnappings, white collar crimes, bank fraud and embezzlement, public corruption, civil rights, and foreign counter intelligence,” Fender noted.
“Every day is different and that keeps things interesting,” Fender said. “I may be talking to a banker today about a robbery, and then tomorrow be in a hut in Africa finding parts of IEDs.”
Fender’s job has taken to him to many spots around the globe and has allowed him an opportunity to work on numerous high-profile cases. “During the Oklahoma City investigation, I developed an interest in learning more about explosives and terrorism and how the two are interrelated,” he said.
Fender, who earned a bachelor’s degree at RU in 1983 and a master’s in 1985, began his training, as all bomb technicians do, at the Hazardous Devices School in Huntsville, Ala. Now as a veteran of the craft, he assists in training of local and state police department bomb squads, and recently journeyed to Amman, Jordan to help with the training of police officials at the Jordan International Police Training Centre. Locally, Fender often responds with police bomb squads to any bomb threats or incidents in the state.
“I work a lot of cases in the state, but my job also takes me to several locations around the world to work on our interests outside the U.S.,” he said. “I have worked on almost every major terrorism event since and including Oklahoma City.”
Within days of the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Africa that killed more than 230 people, including 12 Americans, Fender was sent to Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar to collect evidence and conduct interviews. Two years earlier, Fender was working in the FBI’s Atlanta Division and was on duty the night a bomb exploded at Centennial Park during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. Eric Rudolph later confessed to the Olympic Park bombing and three other bombings, two of which Fender investigated. Fender also was one of the agents charged with the task of uncovering and disposing of the more than 250 pounds of dynamite and IED components that Rudolph left buried in the mountains of North Carolina.
“We used counter-charges to dispose of those explosives and IED components on site,” Fender said.
Following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington D.C., Fender spent approximately a month collecting evidence at the Pentagon. “We found information that enabled us to identify the terrorists who were on the plane that hit the Pentagon,” Fender said of the FBI’s investigative efforts.
More recently, Fender spent several months in Afghanistan where he and other bomb technicians were assigned to a military unit involved with the recovery of improvised explosive devices. Once detonated IEDs were recovered, Fender along with other bomb techs, engineers, military personnel and a slew of bomb specialists from a number of agencies examined the devices and created detailed reports about mechanics of the IEDs.
“The idea behind this work was to get real-time intelligence back out to our soldiers on the battlefield,” Fender said.
Fender’s job involves plenty of danger, but he wouldn’t trade it for any desk job in the world. “My wife says that danger follows me, but my job is the best in the world,” he said. “What other job allows you to work on a local case one day and the next day be in the Middle East to interview al-Qaeda subjects?”
As for the danger, Fender relies upon his years of training when his job requires cutting the red wire to disable a bomb. “Actually, we don’t cut the red wire,” he said. “We have robots to do that. The red wire is just for the movies.”
Fender also credits professors at RU, including Jim Gilbert, for helping him develop an interest in criminal justice studies.
“Those guys were great and were very knowledgeable and inspirational,” Fender said. “I loved those classes. I am so proud to be a graduate of Radford University. The fact that I went back to RU to get my master’s degree made a huge difference in my career route.”