On the morning of September 11, 2001, Betty Ann Ong flew from Boston to Los Angeles to meet her sister before leaving for a long-awaited vacation in Hawaii.
But a few minutes after takeoff, five hijackers on board had caught up with the cockpit and thrown a mass into the cabin. Instead of heading southwest, the Boeing 767 turned to New York.
Ong, 45, had been a flight attendant with American Airlines for 14 years. As chaos ensued, she acted on instinct. From the back of the plane, she called the airline’s reservation center in Raleigh, NC, and described the chaos overseas.
“The cockpit is not responding,” she said firmly. “Someone was stabbed in business class and – I think there is a mass – we can’t breathe. I don’t know, I think we are hijacked.
Ong became the first person to alert authorities to the deadly events that would occur that day. Over the next 20 minutes, she relayed critical information about the identity of the hijackers and led the air traffic controllers to land every plane flying over the United States.
The line then fell silent when American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, killing all 81 passengers and 11 crew.
In 2004, a four-minute tape of Ong’s Appeal was broadcast to the 9/11 Commission, where she was declared a national heroine. His “duty, courage, selflessness and love,” said the panel chair, may have saved countless lives.
Two decades have passed since the coordinated attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people and rocked the world. But for Ong’s family, the occasion has barely stood out with 9/11 since then.
“People will call it a birthday, a memorial, a tribute,” Betty’s brother Harry Ong told NBC Asian America. “For us, it’s just a continuation of 20 years of angst – to wonder why America had to be attacked, why out of 6,000 planes flying that day, she had to be on that plane.”
At a memorial a month after the attacks, Harry Ong met a woman named Nydia Gonzalez, who told him she spoke with her sister moments before the plane crashed. Gonzalez, an American Airlines operations specialist, took the call from Flight 11 and recorded the 24-minute exchange.
It was the first time Ong learned of the larger role his sister had played in the tragedy.
“We were devastated,” he recalls. “We have never heard of this from his friends and colleagues.”
Gonzalez, who later testified before the 9/11 commission, also shared with Ong the compassion and poise his sister displayed as the plane headed for the World Trade Center.
“She told us that Betty had asked for prayers for everyone on the flight,” Ong said. “She wanted us to know that Betty was very professional and very calm throughout the call.”
Betty Ann Ong was born in San Francisco in 1956, the youngest of four children. A tight-knit family with limited means, the NGOs lived mainly in Chinatown. A desire to explore the world beyond, said Harry Ong, led his sister to become a flight attendant in 1987.
Ong said that Betty’s favorite hobby is buying vintage dolls. During her travels in Asia and Europe, he said, she bought the first issues of Beanie Babies, Barbies and Chinese dolls. After his sister died, Ong and his parents visited his apartment in suburban Boston and found box after box of stuffed animals. Some still remain with the family, intact since their discovery.
“It was so difficult to open these boxes and give them away because they were part of her,” he said.
Ong described his sister, who was engaged to be married at the time of her death, as “the family prankster” who made everyone laugh until their stomach ache. But she also had a supernatural acuity.
In the 1980s, Betty, who also had two sisters, worked in her parents’ grocery store in San Francisco’s Chinatown, then plagued by gang violence. One day, Harry recalls, a group of gang members broke into the store and asked Betty to hand over some money. Irritated, she asked them to leave. Someone pulled out a gun and pointed it at her. She held on and told them to go again. Finally, they did.
“She’s not afraid,” Harry said. “I think that’s why she made that call. She had a lot of courage and calm even though she knew people had been stabbed and the mass was spreading through the air.
Over the years, many efforts have been made to honor Betty Ong’s legacy. Ten days after the attack, San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown declared September 21, 2001 Betty Ann Ong Day. Five years later, the Ong siblings created the Betty Ong Foundation, which aims to prevent childhood obesity and funds a host of programs for seniors and youth in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
“Betty’s colleagues told us that she always pays more attention to the elderly and children during flights,” said Harry, “so a lot of our programs are aimed at children and the elderly.”
A handful of films, including a new one Netflix docu-series on the attacks and the 2013 Oscar-winning movie “Zero Dark Thirty” used the recording of Ong’s call in their opening sequences. (The Ong family apologized to the latter’s filmmakers for using the tape without their consent. The filmmakers eventually apologized and credited Ong in the DVD edition of the film.)
But perhaps the most significant dedication came from a grassroots movement in Betty’s hometown.
Reverend Norman Fong, who was the longtime former executive director of San Francisco’s Chinatown Community Development Center, said there was virtually no media coverage of his actions in the first years after 9/11. It took a decade of community organizing for the city to recognize her as a local hero.
“It was frustrating because I felt like she was being ignored,” said Fong, who has known Betty and her siblings since they were kids. “I didn’t know if it was because she was Chinese or what.”
In 2011, Fong launched a campaign to rename the newly renovated Chinese Leisure Center in honor of Betty. A mainstay of Chinatown since 1951, the building offers after-school programs and sports facilities for low-income children and seniors. Fong asked the NGOs to rally their support for a petition. In three days, said Harry Ong, the family had collected more than 3,000 signatures from neighbors and fellow flight attendants of Betty, which led to a vote by the Parks and Recreation Commission.
Before the 10th anniversary of the attacks, the building became known as the Betty Ann Ong Rec Center.
“It’s important to point out heroes like Betty Ong not only because it’s the 20th anniversary, but also because we’re in a time of too much anti-Asian sentiment in this country,” said Malcolm Yeung, the current executive director of Chinatown Community Development Center. “This community has a long history of being part of the fabric that has built America. Betty is part of this story.