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Pain never ebbs for family of Betty Ong, flight attendant who made first 9/11 alert

“People will call it an anniversary, a memorial, a tribute,” said Harry Ong, Betty’s brother. “To us, it’s just a continuation of 20 years of anguish.” 
Harry Ong, brother of Betty Ong, who was a flight attendant on Flight 11 on September 11, 2001, holds a portrait of his sister, Betty Ong, at his home on Tuesday, September 6, 2011 in San Francisco, Calif.  Ong  was a flight attendant on Flight 11 on 9/11
Betty Ong's brother Harry holds a portrait of her at his home in San Francisco on Sept. 6, 2011. Lea Suzuki / San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images file

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Betty Ann Ong was flying from Boston to Los Angeles to meet her sister before heading off for a long-awaited vacation in Hawaii.

But within minutes of takeoff, five hijackers on board had overtaken the cockpit and blasted mace into the cabin. Instead of heading southwest, the Boeing 767 turned toward New York City.

Ong, 45, had been an American Airlines flight attendant for 14 years. As chaos ensued, she acted on instinct. From the back of the plane, she called the airline’s reservations center in Raleigh, North Carolina, and described the mayhem abroad.

“The cockpit’s not answering,” she said in a steady voice. “Somebody’s stabbed in business class and — I think there’s mace — that we can’t breathe. I don’t know, I think we’re getting 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 air traffic controllers to land every plane flying over the U.S.

Then the line went silent as American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the World Trade Center’s north tower, killing all 81 passengers and 11 crew members.

In 2004, a four-minute tape of Ong’s call was played at the 9/11 Commission, where she was declared a national hero. Her “duty, courage, selflessness and love,” the panel’s chairman said, may have saved an untold number of lives.

Two decades have passed since the coordinated attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people and shook the world. But for Ong’s family, the occasion is hardly distinguishable from any Sept. 11 since then.

Harry Ong fixes flowers at his sister's niche at Cypress cemetery in Colma, Calif., on July 20, 2011. Liz Hafalia / San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images file

“People will call it an anniversary, a memorial, a tribute,” Harry Ong, Betty’s brother, told NBC Asian America. “To us, it’s just a continuation of 20 years of anguish — of wondering 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 his sister moments before the plane crashed. Gonzalez, an American Airlines operations specialist, had taken the call from Flight 11 and recorded the 24-minute exchange.

It was the first time Ong learned about the larger role his sister had played in the tragedy. 

“We were floored,” he recalled. “We never heard about that from her friends and colleagues.”

Gonzalez, who later testified before the 9/11 commission, also shared with Ong the compassion and composure his sister displayed as the aircraft hurtled toward the World Trade Center.

“She told us that Betty 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 tightknit family of limited means, the Ongs lived mostly in Chinatown. A yearning to explore the world beyond, Harry Ong said, drove his sister to become a flight attendant in 1987.

Ong said Betty’s favorite pastime was shopping for vintage dolls. During her travels to Asia and Europe, he said, she bought first issues of Beanie Babies, Barbies and China dolls. After his sister died, Ong and his parents visited her apartment in the Boston suburbs and found box after box of stuffed animals. Some still remain with the family, untouched since their discovery.

“It was so hard to open those boxes and give them away because they were a part of her,” he said.

Ong described his sister, who was engaged at the time of her death, as “the jokester of the family” who made everyone laugh till their stomachs hurt. But she also had a preternatural steeliness. 

In the 1980s, Betty, who also had two sisters, worked at her parents’ grocery store in San Francisco's Chinatown, which was then rife with gang violence. One day, Harry recalled, a group of gang members barged into the shop and demanded that Betty hand over money. Irritated, she asked them to leave. Someone drew a gun and pointed it at her. She stood her ground and again told them to leave. Eventually, they did.

“She’s not fearful,” Harry said. “I believe that’s why when she made that call. She had a lot of courage and calmness even though she knew people had been stabbed and mace was spreading in the air.”

Over the years, there have been numerous efforts to honor Betty Ong's legacy. Ten days after the attack, San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown declared Sept. 21, 2001, Betty Ann Ong Day. Five years later, the Ong siblings established the Betty Ong Foundation, which aims to prevent childhood obesity and funds a host of senior and youth programs in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

“Betty’s colleagues told us she always paid more attention to seniors and children during flights,” Harry said, “so a lot of our programs are geared toward children and seniors.”

A handful of films, including a new Netflix docuseries on the attacks and the 2013 Academy Award winning "Zero Dark Thirty," used the recording of Ong’s call in their opening sequences. (The Ong family demanded an apology from the latter’s filmmakers for using the tape without their consent. The filmmakers eventually apologized and gave Ong a credit in the DVD edition of the movie.)

But perhaps the most significant dedication grew out of a grassroots movement in Betty’s hometown. 

The Rev. Norman Fong, who was the longtime former executive director of San Francisco’s Chinatown Community Development Center, said there was scarcely any media coverage of her actions the first few 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 children. “I didn’t know if it was because she was Chinese or what.” 

In 2011, Fong spearheaded a campaign to rename the newly renovated Chinese Recreation Center after Betty. A pillar of Chinatown since 1951, the building runs after-school programs and sports facilities for low-income children and seniors. Fong asked the Ongs to rally support for a petition. Within three days, Harry Ong said, the family had gathered more than 3,000 signatures from neighbors and Betty’s flight attendant colleagues, leading to a vote by the Recreation and Park Commission.

Ahead of the 10th anniversary of the attacks, the building became known as the Betty Ann Ong Rec Center.

“It’s important to point to heroes like Betty Ong not only because it’s the 20-year anniversary, but also because we’re in a moment 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 built America. Betty is part of this history.”