Remembering Betty: The Voice of Flight 11
by Lynda Lin, September 11, 2006
Pacific Citizen, a member of New America Media
Editor's Note: Betty Ong, a flight attendent on United Flight 11, has been called an unsung hero for her 23-minute phone conversation relaying vital information that later allowed the FBI to identify the terrorists including purported ringleader Mohammed Atta. But the public has been fickle with Betty's memory.
Sept. 11, 2006
Pacific Citizen News Feature
by Linda Lin
NAM Editor's Note: Betty Ong, a flight attendent on United Flight 11, has been called an unsung hero for her 23-minute phone conversation relaying vital information that later allowed the FBI to identify the terrorists including purported ringleader Mohammed Atta. But the public has been fickle with Betty's memory.
How do you heal a wound? Each time this year, the suture seems to bleed a bit and some commemorate the loss in the same way America has traditionally honored presidents: renaming streets, schools and public buildings. On the East Coast, a post office named Todd Beamer reminds its patrons of the exhortation, "Let's roll." And for the new school year in San Jose, Calif. students pass through the threshold of Capt. Jason M. Dahl Elementary School, the pilot of United Flight 93 whose untimely death has recently been immortalized in a Hollywood movie.
But who remembers the young woman with the calm voice telling American Airlines officials the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, about the hijackers' seat numbers and the choking presence of mace? In the recording of the telephone conversation, she says "Okay, my name is Betty Ong. I'm number three on Flight 11."
In pictures her smile is soft and haunting, but is she fading from our memory?
"I know the Asian community is aware of Betty. I can't gauge who Betty is to them," said Cathie Ong-Herrera, Betty's older sister. Is she a hero or a person who just happened to be recorded on the phone?
On several occasions, Betty has been called an unsung hero for her 23-minute phone conversation relaying vital information that later allowed the FBI to identify the terrorists including purported ringleader Mohammed Atta. Months after Betty's death at 45, memorial services were held in San Francisco's Chinatown where Betty was born and Mayor Willie Brown proclaimed Sept. 21 "Betty Ong Day.'' Since then the public has been fickle with Betty's memory.
Right now the only memorial bearing Betty's name is a Bakersfield, Calif. charitable foundation geared towards preventing childhood obesity, which Cathie heads herself. Over the years, Cathie has asked city officials to rename a school or a playground after her sister, but she has had no success.
"Flight attendants were first soldiers to fight this war on terror," said Cathie. "All the victims, survivors and rescue workers are heroes. I find it disheartening that Betty hasn't received the recognition that she deserves."
Perhaps you heard Betty's story before.
Growing up in San Francisco's Chinatown, Betty was a second generation Chinese American and the youngest sibling in the Ong family, who enjoyed going to the Chinese opera and mimicking the performers' gestures. She played sports and whirred through alleyways on her skateboard.
Eventually, her love for travel pointed her in the direction of the aviation industry. She started at baggage check then worked the Delta Airlines ticket counter. In 1987, she scored her dream job as an American Airlines flight attendant. For 14 years, Betty sported the midnight blue uniform and cared for thousands of travelers.
She was caring and giving, loved ones said.
On Sept. 11, Cathie received a phone call from her older brother Harry.
"I was just waking up and he said, 'Cathie do you have your TV turned on? There's something going on in New York and I think it's history in the making.'"
Cathie turned on the television - and along with the rest of the world - watched planes crashing into the World Trade Center towers. They watched together in disbelief. After a pause Harry asked, "Do you know where Betty is?"
Flight 11 left Boston for Los Angeles with Betty onboard and punctured the north tower, the first attack of the day. Cathie and Betty were supposed to meet that day to go over the details of their planned trip to Hawaii.
"I waited to hear from her and she never called," said Cathie, her voice cracking with emotions. "I was out of my mind. I remember going through a lot of anxiety. Pacing up and down the hall and I kept saying, 'Betty don't do this to me.'"
That afternoon, Cathie was in her car headed to San Francisco when Harry called and confirmed Betty was on the flight.
"I pulled off the freeway ... looked up into the sky and started screaming, 'Why? Why?'"
Later that month at a remembrance ceremony for Betty, Cathie met Nydia Gonzalez, one of American Airlines employees who took Betty's last call.
I just wanted you to know that your sister was very, very brave, Nydia told the Ong family. Then they found out about the tape - nearly four minutes of recorded conversation between Betty, Nydia and another airline official that was being held by the FBI. The Ong siblings wanted to hear their baby sister's last words.
With the help of Sen. Ed Kennedy from Massachusetts where Betty had lived, the Ong family was finally able to listen to the tape in January 2002 in a conference room at the San Francisco airport.
"I didn't know what to expect. When I heard her words, it was very comforting. We're very proud of her. She was sweet, she would give her heart to you ... but she also had an attitude of don't-mess-with-me. She showed this courage when called upon," said Cathie.
But some supporters say not enough is being done to keep Betty's memory alive.
"Betty Ong would probably be more well-known across the country if she [were] not a Chinese American," said Rev. Norman Fong.
Cathie had unsuccessfully asked officials from Jean Parker Elementary School, where Betty attended, to consider changing its name in honor of Betty. A spokesperson from Jean Parker told the P.C. they could not comment.
"There is absolutely no question that Betty and our other crew members aboard our flights that perished are heroes. They acted as true, and brave, professionals in a way that continues to make all of us at American Airlines proud. That pride in their heroism helps to offset the sadness of that day which will never leave us," said Tim Smith, American Airlines director of corporate communications.
American Airlines has erected a small memorial for their Sept. 11 crewmembers near their flight academy. Each year, employees have a small, quiet ceremony, said Smith.
"My heart hurts every day," said Cathie who started a foundation in her sister's name because of Betty's love for children. "We know that there are certain children issues that have been underserved like childhood obesity."
The Betty Ong Foundation sponsors children to go to camp to learn about nutrition and physical fitness. Betty always wanted to instill a sense of self-confidence in children. At a young age Betty was really tall; she towered over classmates and at first she was awkward and shy, but through team sports she learned to embrace victory and overcome adversity.
This year, for Sept. 11 and "Betty Ong Day," the Ong family doesn't plan to travel. A part of Betty was returned, so they are going to visit her at Cypress Lawn.
"If she were alive, she would say let's march on and move forward in a positive light. In the spirit of our fallen heroes, let's cherish your purpose in life."
On the Web: www.bettyong.org