WBUR

9/11 Stories: A Flight Attendant’s Calm Final Call

WBUR is remembering Sept. 11 through the stories of men and women from around Massachusetts whose lives were touched that day — those who lost loved ones, those who responded and those whose lives were affected in more unexpected ways.

Betty Ong, a flight attendant from Andover, was on board Flight 11, the first of the two planes from Boston to hit the World Trade Center. That morning, Betty’s brother, Harry Ong Jr., was up at 6 a.m. and watching TV. He immediately called his sister, Cathie Ong Herrera. The two remember that day and their battle to present the public with an accurate picture of their sister.

Click to hear Cathie and Harry tell their story, or read it below.

Betty Ong (Courtesy)

Betty Ong (Courtesy)

CATHIE: Harry and I stayed on the telephone for quite a long time and I remember him asking me where Betty was and I told him that, you know, she should be on her way to Los Angeles because I was going to be meeting with Betty later that afternoon. And Harry got very quiet and I could actually sense the concern in his voice as he told me that he thought he heard that the airplane might have originated from Boston, going to Los Angeles.

HARRY: You know, I’m hoping that Betty’s not on that plane, I’m hoping that of all the thousands of planes in the air that particular day and morning that Betty is just not on that plane.

CATHIE: I remember right at that moment my heart just sank.

HARRY: I told Cathie before we hung up that I would try to reach American Airlines and I called about 11 o’clock Pacific time, figuring that’s when Betty would be possibly landing. When I first called, American Airlines said, no, there was no Betty Ann Ong on the flight itinerary. And so I was pretty relieved.

And by about 5 o’clock, I didn’t hear back from Betty and I said, I’m just going to call one more time to American Airlines and I called and it was then that they had confirmed that Betty was on the plane. And then I called Cathie and I told her about Betty on the plane and I had to call my parents and I told my mom to have a seat and I said, mom, if you turn on the television and you see a plane, one of the buildings that had a plane crash into it, I said, I think Betty’s on one of those flights. And then my mom just broke down.

CATHIE: We had a memorial service for Betty in October, I believe it was about three weeks after Sept. 11, and I was standing there at the check-in counter to the hotel and I was talking and I noticed that there was this lady standing not far away from me and she came up to me and she says, my name is Nydia Gonzalez and I’m the one that spoke to Betty from the ground.

“To hear Betty’s voice once again and with its force … it’s just very emotional…”
– Harry Ong Jr.

At that moment I just looked at her and without even thinking about it, I just grabbed her and hugged her. And one of the first things that she said to me was, you need to be so proud of your sister. She was very calm, she was never harmed and she provided us with the first information to help us to identify the hijackers. And it was at that time that we learned there was a voice recording of Betty’s call.

I later on spent a lot of time back east attending meetings and during one particular trip I was in the Admiral’s Club at the JFK Airport in New York and I happened to pick up The Wall Street Journal and they just happened to have an article about Betty. And this one particular person had described Betty on the phone as being hysterical and gasping and shrieking for air, which just totally destroyed the comfort that we knew in hearing from Nydia about how she was describing Betty’s demeanor.

HARRY: I actually called The Wall Street Journal writers and I said, you know, we had spoken with the person who spoke with Betty, her name being Nydia Gonzalez, and that it just contradicted everything that they had written, you know, it’s just not true.

And they said, well, until you can maybe somehow get something different, this is all we have to go on and this is our report.

CATHIE: Soon after that I called American Airlines and I told them that I wanted to listen to Betty’s voice tape and they said absolutely not.

So I called Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s office and I told them the same thing and the next day American Airlines called me and said when and where would you like to listen to Betty’s voice tape? And it wasn’t until January of 2002 that we had arranged to listen to her voice tape in private in a room at the San Francisco Airport.

Standing, from left: Betty, Gloria, Cathie and Harry Ong. Seated are the siblings' mother and father. (Courtesy)

Standing, from left: Betty, Gloria, Cathie and Harry Ong. Seated are the siblings' mother and father. (Courtesy)

BETTY: OK my name is Betty Ong. I’m No. 3 on Flight 11.

AMERICAN AIRLINES OPERATIONS CENTER: OK.

BETTY: And the cockpit is not answering their phone, and there’s somebody stabbed in business class, and we can’t breathe in business class — somebody’s got Mace or something.

AMERICAN AIRLINES OPERATIONS CENTER: Can you describe the person that you said… someone is what in business class?

BETTY: I’m sitting in the back. Somebody is coming back from business, hold on for one second. … OK our No. 1 got stabbed, our purser got stabbed. Nobody knows who stabbed who, and we can’t even get up to business class right now because nobody can breathe.

HARRY: I was actually sitting there with Cathie and I was just shaking, and I was just crying and I was just shaking. To hear Betty’s voice once again and with its force … it’s just very emotional to listen to my sister Betty knowing that those were her very last moments of her life and actually I’ve always had this feeling that I just never really had a chance to say goodbye to her.

CATHIE: I feel that we are very fortunate. There were many heroes that morning — you know, we’re talking about almost 3,000 people who died that day — and we will never get to know what their story is.

Just knowing how calm she was and just her professional demeanor, I was just so very proud of her to hear that. At some point she says, I’m staying on the line with you, as well. To me it’s just amazing and that is one of the main things that I will always remember about her conversation is just how calm she was.

BETTY: Is anybody still there?

AMERICAN AIRLINES OPERATIONS CENTER: Yes, we’re still here.

BETTY: OK. I’m staying on the line, as well.

AMERICAN AIRLINES OPERATIONS CENTER: OK.

During her call to the ground, Betty Ong provided officials with the seat numbers of the hijackers, allowing them to identify the men early on. She was still on the phone, trying to help, when her plane hit the World Trade Center.

Betty’s siblings have set up a foundation in her name that’s dedicated to promoting healthy eating and exercise for young people, a cause she was committed to.

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  • Stonyrovers

    Did the WSJ ever print an apology or correction?

  • Peter Dodds

    I worked in # 7 WTC. On that day I was in hospital in Bangkok Thailand, due to return in a couple of days or so. When I did return to JFK airport the welcoming Twin Towers had gone from the horizon and that was a very traumatic moment for all on the plane. # 7 had also been destroyed, burned by a fire that had apparently been assisted by a large store of heating oil kept in the building to maintain power for a number of strategic units in the building. The fire burned for about a month and the smell was strong for as long, a constant reminder of the horror. I did not return to the site for over five years and even then the memory was  hard to bear.

  • Peter Dodds

    I worked in # 7 WTC. On that day I was in hospital in Bangkok Thailand, due to return in a couple of days or so. When I did return to JFK airport the welcoming Twin Towers had gone from the horizon and that was a very traumatic moment for all on the plane. # 7 had also been destroyed, burned by a fire that had apparently been assisted by a large store of heating oil kept in the building to maintain power for a number of strategic units in the building. The fire burned for about a month and the smell was strong for as long, a constant reminder of the horror. I did not return to the site for over five years and even then the memory was  hard to bear.

  • Guest

    Such a touching story.  This is meaningful reporting at its best.

  • http://thechannelingof911.com Artsbylindalee

    The sinking in my heart is over whelming listening to and reading this story. Yet peace for the family.

  • Paulinepualei

    She was a heroine in every sense of the word.

  • Terry Parkhurst

    Ernest Hemingway described courage as “grace under pressure.” Betty Ong showed us how that works.

  • Coastal01

    Betty Ong was tall, beautiful, vivacious and I miss flying with her. 

  • Kokoizaidi

    May God bless you Betty.. RIP…

  • Jean

    To lose a sibling and daughter is so hard. Please know that the world loves Betty and may she rest in peace and may your family heal thoroughly. Jean

  • Clr457

    Betty is a TRUE hero! I wish that there would be more said about Betty. With her courage, she probably saved lives with her heads up of who the terriosts were. You will always be my hero and angel. Rest in Peace Betty.
    Carol R. Flight Attendant AA 34 years.

  • Melissa70

    RIP Betty. So sad

  • Tricia

    Very touching!

  • Jodypgross

    I am an American Airlines Flight Attendant,  I’ve heard the recordings as well.  Betty not only was an outstanding FA, she was also a wonderfully beautiful, articulate, and stellar human being.  My thoughts are for her family this 10th anniversary.  She is profoundly missed.

  • Donnabartlett

    I flew with Betty for 10 years. I new when I heard that she made that call she would have been calm and professional. She was a great flight attendant and friend. She is missed s much. I have called her my hero for 10 years. Her call saved I don’t know how many people. I also wish more people knew about this.

  • lynda fitzgerald

    This story moved me when I heard it the other morning.  I would like to hear the audio for thsi again but when I click the “listen here” button nothing happens.  Can you help.  Thanks for this story.  What a brave woman she was.  I read once that “Fear cannot be banished, but it can be calm and without panic; it can be mitigated by reason and evaluation.”  so true of Ms. Ong’s actions that day. 

  • Anonymous

    jo9/11b

  • Christine

    To Harry, Cathie, Gloria, Mom and Dad, My god give you the strength to get through the next few weeks.  I will see you all Sunday.  Betty my friend, you are truly noble and heroic.  It was visible to all of us how much you loved working as a flight attendant.  I will never forget the power of your touch, your smile, your kind words, your listening ear and the gift of your friendship.  I am greatful for the memories we created together that are now forever imprented in my heart.  I love and miss you dearly,  Christine Litch BOS FA

  • VictoriaN

    This story touched my heart with sadness and admiration for a wonderfully brave young woman.  Peace to the Ongs.  

  • Dee

    Very touching and so sad.  I will always remember this story.

  • Diane

    God bless you I am so sorry you lost Betty. I am a American airlines flight attendant and I am proud of our crew members that day… They were heroes . I WILL NEVER FORGET!

  • Dangmars

    I’m so sorry for your loss…everyone’s loss.  My question is did the Wall Street Journal ever make the correction…did they ever make it right?

    • Harry Ong Jr.

      No, there was never a retraction by the Wall Street Journal or their writers. A writer for the Atlantic Monthly (William Langewiesche) also picked up the very same descriptive lines of Betty’s demeanor from the Journal and wrote it in an excerpt in the August 2002 edition of the Atlantic Monthly. The excerpt was part of a soon to be released “American Ground” by William Langewiesche and published in late 2002. After legal action, North Point Press agreed to remove all references to Betty’s demeanor later in the their paperback version….Harry Jr. (brother of Betty Ann Ong)

  • stacey

    To the ongoing family you are in my thoughts and prayers on always. Betty was truly a hero if it wasn’t for her there would still be mystery about what exactly happened. I was blessed to fly with her what a true professional intelligent woman. God bless you

  • Jackie

    I’m glad the story of Betty is finally circulating. I could never understand why her story never seemed to be on the forefront. In my eyes, she saved this country with her phone call and the information she provided to alert the authorities. Although many lives were still lost, she saved thousands of others from suffering her fate, including my own. I was flying that morning.  As an American Airlines colleague, I am so proud of her courage and professionalism. She is truly a 9-11 hero.

  • Vincemaurer

    Just an amazing story.  Harry and Cathie, I am so proud of your sister, and am just so honored with your sharing of this story.  God bless you for continue fighting and acknowledging the Heroe that she was. 

  • Capetown10

    Thank you for this story! Not a day at work goes by without me thinking about Betty and all the other brave crew members, that seem to be forgotten in the aftermath of that terrible day! My Heroes!

  • Karen

    Thank You for sharing…Blessings and peace to everyone in your family…How difficult this all must be. I still remember looking out across the Bay after hearing the terrible news, knowing that our world had most definitely changed. To all of the heroes and their families – may your hearts rest!

  • Diane c

    OMG! Can’t believe that WSJ did not NOT do a retraction!! They should of offered an apology and wrote a tribute story to her–what abysmal behavior!!  That you the Ong family were further victimized by having
    to take leagal action against North Pointe Press to retract (the again) errouneous descriptive statement ofBetty from William Langewiesche the author of “American Gound” is simply mind bogling!!  Both WSJ
    & Mr langewiesche should be more than ashamed for disrespecting both Betty and your family.  With the 10th Anniversary of 911 approaching I will think of the “Hero” Betty and her courageous family.

  • D56hans

    My respect for the WSJ is gone.  To think that they are involved in Yellow Journalism, shakes me to my core.  What else have we got?

  • SkygalJFK

    GOD bless Betty and the rest of the crew…. such professionalism in the face of horrific circumstances amazes me and I think of you when I also don my uniform and board my plAAne… God Bless….

  • Dan Emerson

    A remarkable individual, a classic case of courage – remaining in control under most dire circumstances. Wonder if Charlie Rose and his remarkable team may be able to get WSJ to see the light, do right. 

  • Barbie Perkins-Cooper

    Such a brave and courageous woman. Isn’t it amazing how, ten years later, we still hear stories of heroism from these amazing people. In the blink of an eye, they were gone while trying to remain strong and save the lives of strangers or people they hardly knew. They knew the end result would be tragedy; nevertheless, they still performed at their best – in the eyes of tragedy. America mourns them.

    Barbie Perkins-Cooper

  • Jaliesz

    Thank you for sharing your story with the world.
    Hopefully, the 10 years that have passed has brought your family some closure…
    All of our thoughts and prayers are with you this weekend.

  • Ilse Moscoso Hays

    God Bless Betty and all those who were lost that day.  Thank you so much for sharing this story with all of us.  She was a true hero.

  • Darren Jew

    I think the Wall Street Journal owes the Ong family a deep and sorry apology for disgracing the name of a hero of 9/11, Betty Ong was indeed a hero on flight 11. 

  • Ncirch

    Thank you for sharing your story.  I just wonder who the Wall Street Journals source was for such incorrect information?  It is wonderful you were able to get the truth. May God Bless and watch over the Ong family and all the other heros of 9/11.

  • Mary

    Thank you so much for sharing your story, and to Betty for her amazing heroism. It takes an extremely special person to remain calm and on the phone like Betty did. I wish that I could know with certainty that Betty knows about this story and all the people who are in awe of her.

  • Elliott

    Thank you so much for sharing your story.  Betty Ong was a very brave person.  It’s good for someone like me, who was fortunate enough not to lose family and  friends on 9/11, to hear a personal story about someone as brave as Betty.   My sincere best wishes to the entire Ong family.

  • Julie

    Thanks for sharing your story. Betty was a very brave person, may God bless her and everyone who died on that tragic day, for they will forever lie in our hearts as true American heroes.

  • Cher

    I am so glad your family has been able to hear Betty’s voice and know how bravely and professionally she conducted herself. It is a blessing she was able to give so much information that investigators could use. May we all honor those lost on 9/11 and their families by believing in and building a better future. Make a difference, be the one willing to help another! Very impressed that Betty’s family still keeps making a difference in her name today.

  • Schoonover E

    Betty Ong did the right thing that day on flight 11 and I give her a rond of a hand for what she did that day

  • Mario

    Thank you for your incredible courage to share your story with us. I was watching a documentary about 9/11 and I saw this scene in which the recording of Betty’s conversation with the operations centre was played. Betty was so calm, during those horrific minutes and I admire her so much for that. She was a really beautiful woman, and she certainly did not die in vain. She and all the innocent persons that lost their lifes will forever live on in our hearts. My very best wishes to the Ong family.

  • Gloriacasey

    I am amazingly proud of Betty and fortunate that I had the chance to work with her – her strenght and professionism will be remembered always. Thank you.

    Gloria

  • Rob Lee

    Sad day but sadder still are the repercussions of that day

  • ClaireEllefson1

    Wow. I know i won’t have been that calm! Hats off to Betsy!

  • Bsutton2001

    i can not believe that someone on that day knowing nothing was so calm and sweet i feel so bad it had to happen to betty. best of luck ,
    brooklynn

  • Oh2bme

    Your courage and professionalism on that horrible Tuesday morning gives me strength to this day, Betty.  Although I never knew you, as a 9/11 family member, I have come to know your family, and their love for you is immense.  I hope everyone now understands how special you were, not only to your family, but to the families of the nearly 3,000 souls lost on September 11, 2001.

  • Jormie

    amazing courage from an amazing person.  we will NEVER forget!

  • Kellik8581

    Amazing, she was an amazing woman. Please tell me that the Wall Street Journal retracted the story WITH an apology, condolence, & HEFTY contribution to her families fund.
    I’m SO glad you got to listen to the truth of her last moments, the truth you knew all along. So sorry for you & your family’s loss. I’m glad for all those who died with her the comfort she gave. May she rest in peace.

  • Abbytamper67

    She is an outstanding  and brave person! She deserves to be in a great place! 

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