Thanks to Ong's information, authorities were able to determine the identities of the hijackers
9/11 is a date none of us will forget. The devastating terrorist attack irreversibly altered the landscape of geopolitics, international security and foreign policy. Its ripples are still being felt today, 17 years later.
Whilst we remember all the victims who needlessly lost their lives on that fateful day in 2001, there are some whose actions would must be commemorated.
One such hero went by the name of Betty Ong. The Chinese American was a flight attendant aboard American Airlines Flight 11 – the first flight to hit the World Trade Center. She had assigned herself to the flight so she could fly to Los Angeles to go on holiday with her sister in Hawaii.
15 minutes into the flight, hijackers Mohamed Atta, Abdulaziz al-Omari , Wail al-Shehri, Waleed al-Shehri and Satam al-Suqami seized control of the aircraft.
Shorty after the hijacking, Ong bravely called American Airlines ground crew and informed them about the attack. She stayed on the phone for 25 minutes with the ground staff, relaying exactly what was unfolding.
Her vital information led to the FAA’s historic decision to close the airspace. Additionally, Ong provided the seat numbers occupied by the hijackers – information that authorities would later be able to use to identify the terrorists.
The transcript and audio conversation between Ong and ground staff is available online. In the conversation, Ong is heard informing ground staff that the hijackers had attacked passengers. “The cockpit’s not answering,” Ong says. “Somebody’s stabbed in business class, and um I think there is Mace that we can’t breathe. I don’t know, I think we’re getting hijacked.”
She goes on to reveal that the staff had been stabbed and the cockpit had been locked. “Our Number 1 is, is stabbed right now,” she said. “And our Number 5. Our first-class passenger that, ah first ah class galley flight attendant and our purser has been stabbed and we can’t get to the cockpit, the door won’t open.”
American Airlines operations specialist, Nydia Gonzalez, who had been talking with Ong at the time relayed the information back to the airline. Ong said she thought the pilots were no longer in control of the plane, telling Gonzalez, “pray for us. Pray for us” as the aircraft approached Manhattan, lowering in altitude.
“What’s going on, Betty? Betty, talk to me. Are you there? Betty?” Gonzalez asks. Gradually, she begins to lose connection with Ong until she tragically concludes, “I think we might have lost her.”
Mohamed Atta had flown the aircraft into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, killing all 92 people aboard.
In a formal statement to the 9/11 Commission, Gonzalez said, “with the assistance of her fellow crew members, Betty was able to provide us with vital information that would later prove crucial to the investigation. Betty’s selfless acts of courage and determination may have saved the lives of many others. She provided important information which ultimately led to the closing of our nation’s airspace for the first time in its history.”
Born in Chinatown San Francisco, Ong was a raised by parents Harry and mother Yee-gum Oy who ran a grocery store. Ong is also survived by brother Harry and sisters Cathie and Gloria.
“Everyone who knew Betty really loved her,” said Harry.
“Bee made everybody feel like they knew her right away,” Cathie added.
“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 continued. “But Betty always strolled 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.”
10 days after the attacks of September 11th, 200 members of the Chinese American community in San Francisco gathered in a park to remember and pay tribute to Ong. Mayor of San Francisco Willie Brown called 21 September ‘Betty Ong Day’.
“When 180,000 San Franciscans say their prayers, they can say the angel, Betty Ong, by name,” the Mayor said.
A recreation centre in San Francisco’s Chinatown was renamed in 2011 to the Betty Ann Ong Chinese Recreation Center.
Additionally, The Betty Ann Ong Foundation was set up as a non-profit public charity. Its mission is to “educate children to the positive benefits of lifelong physical activity and healthy eating habits and to provide opportunities for children to experience the great outdoors so that they can grow to become healthy, strong and productive individuals.”
Betty Ong was a true hero on 9/11 and whilst we associate the events of that day with remorse, we must also honour Ong’s bravery and courage.