Betty Ong was remembered Friday ahead of the 20-year anniversary of 9/11. The flight attendant was identified as the first person to alert authorities about the hijackers on American Airlines Flight 11, which flew into the World Trade Center’s North Tower on September 11th, 2001.
The brave flight attendant whispered the information to a ground crew that then relayed it to the Federal Aviation Administration – causing the department to close airspace for the first time in history. The 45-year-old spoke into the airphone on that tragic day, explaining that “the cockpit’s not answering. Somebody’s stabbed in business class – and I think there’s Mace… I think we’re getting hijacked.”
Twenty years later, her brother Harry Ong Jr. remembered his sister, telling reporters that “Betty said to ‘ask for prayers; pray for us all.’ She didn’t say, ‘Just pray for me.’” Ong Jr. claimed that instead of worrying about herself, his sister “cared for people and all the passengers.”
Betty Ong was working an extra shift on September 11th. She took the assignment on Flight 11, which was set to land in Los Angeles from Boston, because she wanted to make extra money for a Hawaiian vacation with her sister Cathie. Things went awry just 14 minutes after takeoff when the plane made a sudden U-turn. Ong then made the heroic call, risking her life to inform flight control – and ultimately the world – of the tragedy aboard the plane.
“We can’t breathe,” she told them. “And I don’t know. I think we’re getting hijacked.” It was that same call that Betty Ong explained the terrorists wounded Karen Martin and Bobbi Arestegui – also flight attendants – in order to jam their way into the cockpit. The terrorists then killed John Ogonowski and Thomas McGuinness Jr. as the co-pilots flew the American Airlines plane. The flight attendant’s incredible call told the story of Flight 11, a story that would have been forgotten otherwise.
According to authorities, Betty Ong also helped them identify the five hijackers based on their seat numbers. Ong was assisted by her fellow flight attendant Madeline Sweeney. Her heroism was remembered Friday, as the country prepares to honor those who lost their lives during 9/11 20 years ago, including 25 flight attendants.
“I have a picture of her at my desk,” said Harry Ong Jr. “I see her every day. I think about her every day.” According to her brother, Betty Ong was the youngest of four siblings. Because the family grew up without a lot of money, his sister loved her job. Being a flight attendant enabled her to travel to places she never imagined.
Ong Jr. told reporters that he “always [wonders] why roughly almost 6,000 airplanes that were up in the sky that morning all over the world, why Betty had to be in one of those planes. People say, ‘Well, you just need to move on but it’s difficult to move on.” He claimed his father, who died in 2007, waited every day for his youngest daughter to return home.
“He was just always watching the television, the news stations, for hopes that it was news that Betty is coming home and that she’s OK,” Ong Jr. admitted. “One of my issues really is the fact that I was not there on the plane, I was not there to protect her and also not there to say goodbye.”
Though Betty Ong never returned to her father, her spirit is still very much alive. The Chinese Recreation Center she used to play in as a kid in San Francisco’s Chinatown was renamed in her honor in 2012. At the time, her eldest brother claimed that “it’s a joy for us to see Betty be remembered and hopefully by the kids who attend here.”
Harry Ong Jr. admitted that he finds it hard to forget that horrid day. He said that 9/11 feels “just like yesterday” and that it’s difficult to move on. Despite his pain, he said he hopes that others won’t forget what happened on that historic day: What was lost and what was gained.
He said that “I do want people to remember that, after that dark day, people exhibited love for each other.” He added that “I remember the heroic firefighters, the police, the people, the other ancillary people … give them honor. They did their job and they showed a lot of bravery.”