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.
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.
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.
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.