26 minutes before the plane crashed into the World Trade Center, flight attendant Betty Ann Ong secretly announced the flight was hijacked.
“The pilot in the cockpit was not responding. Someone was hit in business class. I think they had tear gas. I think the plane was being hijacked,” Betty, 45, announced in a calm voice. , professionally with ground staff from the phone behind American Airlines Flight 11 at 8:20 a.m. on September 11, 2001.
Betty asked to work an extra shift on Flight 11 from Boston, Massachusetts, to Los Angeles, California so she could go on vacation with her sister Cathie to Hawaii. But 14 minutes after takeoff, the plane was hijacked and diverted to New York City.
Thanks to Betty’s secret call, the world learns of terrorists who seriously injured flight attendants Karen Martin and Bobbi Arestegui, murdered business class passenger Daniel Lewin, stormed into the cockpit and killed the pilots. John Ogonowski and Thomas McGuinness Jr.
The call also said the terrorist group had sprayed Mace, that tear gas was banned on flights, and that passengers had to huddle to escape the gas as the plane headed toward New York. Authorities were able to quickly identify the five hijackers because Betty and her colleague Madeline Sweeney reported their seat numbers.
“Pray for us. Pray for us,” Betty said at last.
The flight crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m., 26 minutes after a call from flight attendant Betty.
Many of the 25 flight attendants killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks showed unparalleled courage. But the contribution of Betty, a Chinese-American, continues to shine more brightly after 20 years, amid the rising tide of hate crimes against Asian Americans.
“My sister gave her life for her country on 9/11, and it’s heartbreaking to think about what’s going on today,” said Cathie Ong-Herrera, one of Betty’s two sisters.
Betty is the youngest child in a family of 4 siblings. Her mother immigrated from China to the United States and gave birth to her in San Francisco, California.
With a slim figure and pretty face, Betty once wanted to be a model, but her mother did not agree. Instead, the then 22-year-old girl went to work at her parents’ beef jerky factory, where an incident showed her nerves of steel.
“One day, the store was broken into,” Cathie said. “Betty was in the front and had a gun to her head. Mom said my sister wasn’t panicking. All Betty said was: ‘Dad, we’re being robbed’.”
The robbers took the money and left. “My sister is not afraid at all,” Cathie added.
Nearly a decade later, in 1987, while driving down a road south of San Francisco, Betty saw a Honda hit by a speeding pickup truck and immediately ran to help.
“I know you! I know you!”, Jo Ellen Chew, a Honda driver, recalled what Betty told her at the time. Turns out the two met a month ago at the bowling alley.
“She was brave, kind, and compassionate. Most people were just passing by. Who would stop and run to help me? It was amazing,” Chew said of Betty.
Since she was a child, Betty has longed to travel. Sometimes she hangs out at San Francisco International Airport just to watch planes take off. Her parents were too busy to take her sisters out. After becoming a flight attendant, she was able to take her sisters to many places such as China, Japan, Hawaii, Canada and England.
“Betty usually flies straight to San Francisco to see her family. The rest of the crew can plan dinner, but Betty will say ‘Have a good time, I’m going home’,” Michelle Brawley Ferragamo, a colleague of Betty’s, said.
On September 11, 2001, when news of the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center, Betty’s siblings desperately tried to contact her. At first, the airline staff assured them that Betty was not on Flight 11. But then the family heard that a brave flight attendant spoke from the plane.
“I said to myself, it was definitely Betty,” Cathie recalls.
At Betty’s tribute two weeks later, Chew, the driver she helped, sang “Hero” by Whitney Houston. A woman approached Cathie, introducing herself as Nydia Gonzalez, an employee of American Airlines.
“I was the one who spoke to your sister from the center of the earth,” she told Cathie. “You must be very proud of your sister. She calmly provided a lot of information.”
That’s when the Ong family learned of a tape recording of Betty’s conversation with American Airlines ground staff. When the family asked to be heard, the airline said that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) would not allow it.
“I was very angry,” Cathie said. “We want to know the truth about what happened to my sister.”
The family called Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts for support and received a positive response. “The next day, American Airlines called me and asked, ‘When and where would you like to hear Betty’s tape?'” Cathie said.
The family listened in dismay as the recording revealed that ground staff had not immediately grasped the seriousness of Betty’s call and kept asking the same questions, wasting precious time. Although the call was painful for them, the family was happy that the conversation was recorded.
“I am so grateful that we were able to know the last minutes of Betty’s life,” said Gloria Ong.
In 2004, the Ong family established a foundation in Betty’s honor. Funds fund summer camps for children and social programs for seniors at the Betty Ann Ong Chinese Recreation Center in San Francisco.
“We continue to support our sister’s contributions with the work we do,” Cathie said. “We want to do things like Betty.”
Huyen Le (Follow NY Post)