By Steven Knipp
“I think we might have lost her.”
With that heartbreaking statement, spoken by a North Carolina-based American Airlines employee, one of the greatest tragedies in U.S. history began.
It was 7:59 on a radiant September morning when American Airlines Flight 11 lifted off from Boston’s Logan Airport, bound for LA. On board were 81 passengers, two pilots and a cabin crew of nine. Sitting in Business Class were Mohammed Atta and four fellow terrorists. Less than an hour after take-off, Atta deliberately flew the Boeing 767 into the World Trade Center’s North Tower.
The Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks killed 3,000 people in New York and Washington, DC. It was the greatest American catastrophe of modern times.
But for San Francisco’s Ong family the tragedy was dreadfully personal. The “her” referred to by American employee Nydia Gonzalez, was Flight Attendant Betty Ann Ong their beloved sister and daughter.
Ong was a victim of the terrorists. She was also the first hero of that fateful day. Many people have heard of Todd Beamer’s courage (“Let’s roll”). But relatively few know about Betty Ong’s.
Within minutes of the hijacking, and despite the murderous mayhem on board, Ong bravely grabbed a crew phone to call colleagues on the ground.
For the next 23 minutes, she gave authorities a detailed account of what was happening. Ong calmly told ground staff there were possibly four hijackers of Middle Eastern extraction on board.
Ong also reported on the carnage taking place the First Class galley attendant, stabbed; the purser, stabbed. The terrorists also slashed the throat of a passenger, who was bleeding profusely. The hijackers locked themselves in the cockpit.
Amid the mid-air horror, Ong remained cool. She identified the seats the terrorists had occupied, enabling the FBI to learn the hijackers’ passport details.
Fifteen minutes after Ong first alerted the world to what was happening, the big Boeing suddenly lurched, tilting wildly. She said the pilots were probably no longer flying the airplane. The 767 approached Manhattan, flying ever lower.
Still on the line, Ong said in a composed voice: “Pray for us. Pray for us.”
Seconds later the line went dead.
Her ground contact asked: “What’s going on, Betty? Betty, talk to me. Are you there? Betty?”
BORN in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Betty Ong enjoyed an idyllic childhood. The youngest sibling, she was doted on by elder brother Harry and sisters Cathie and Gloria. Their parents, Harry Snr, now 84, and Yee-gum Oy, 78, owned a small grocery store where they worked long hours.
As a teenager, Ong grew to be a tall, attractive girl. Though self-conscious about her willowy 5' 9" height, it helped her excel in basketball and volleyball.
“Everyone who knew Betty really loved her,” says Harry, a youthful-looking pharmacist in his early fifties.
Sister Cathie agrees: “Bee made everybody feel like they knew her right away.”
“When we spoke to colleagues who had flown with Betty, they told us that on late night cross-country flights many flight attendants relax after serving dinner,” Harry says. “But Betty always strol-led the cabin, especially mindful of older passengers, and always checked to see if there was anything they needed, an extra blanket, a glass of water, a cup of tea.”
Even on her last day, Betty Ong took time to look after an elderly person. In an e-mail to Ong’s family, Joyce Toto wrote: “I never knew Betty. However, my dad did. He works for American Airlines in Boston as a gate guard; a gate which Betty passed to go to work every day. On that awful day, Betty had kissed my 78-year-old dad on the cheek, said goodbye and asked him to wish her luck. I can’t tell you the joy she brought to this man’s life every day with her smile. You see, my mum had just passed away, and Betty cheered him up daily.”
Ten days after the Sept. 11 attacks, 200 mourners gathered in a San Francisco park to honor Ong. Mayor Willie Brown proclaimed Sept. 21 “Betty Ong Day,” saying, “When 180,000 San Franciscans say their prayers, they can say the angel, Betty Ong, by name.”
Ong’s family always felt she was their hero. But it wasn’t till months after the attacks that they also found she was the nation’s. Last January, a tape of Ong’s urgent message was played before the 9/11 Commission. Hearing her poised voice relating vital information about the hijacking, commission chairman Thomas Kean declared: “Betty Ong is a true American hero.”
Ong will again be honored on Sept. 22 in San Francisco, both as a city native and as an American hero, by the Chinese Community Center.
For Ong’s parents, there is still immense pain. Harry recently found his father quietly weeping. At the thought of that, his voice, too, cracks. “It’s not easy.”
The pain will always be there, but the Ong Family can be genuinely proud that their beloved daughter, and sister, was that rare person who embodied both exceptional courage and uncommon kindness. She literally made the world a better place simply by being in it.