It wasn’t long after the world became aware of what happened that the phrase “never forget” became attached to the horrific attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The family of Betty Ann Ong has lived that mantra daily for the last 20 years, grieving her loss, remembering her kindness and carrying on her legacy through the foundation named after her. “There isn’t a day that goes by that we don’t feel the shock and grief of losing Betty,” her brother Harry Ong says.
Betty, 45, called the American Airlines Southeastern Reservations office from one of the plane’s phones to report an emergency shortly after the flight was hijacked at 8:15 a.m. Over the next 23 minutes, she calmly and heroically shared vital information with authorities, including reports on injuries to the crew and passengers. Her call, the first one that day to alert authorities to the terror attacks, was the catalyst for all flights to be grounded throughout the nation.
An audio portion of her call was played for the 9/11 Commission during a hearing in 2004.
“The cockpit is not answering, 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,” Betty said.
Later, she shared details about the hijackers and the plane’s erratic flight pattern.
“Pray for us,” she said.
Compassion for Others
While the world knows Betty for her professionalism and heroism, her family said her kindness and caring nature are what really stood out.
Jessica Hamilton, a media consultant for Marin Magazine and Make It Better Media Group, was in third-grade at the time of the 9/11 attacks and remembers looking up to her great aunt Betty from a young age.
“When I was younger, I wanted to be a flight attendant just like my Aunt Betty,” Hamilton said. “She will always be one of my heroes.”
Born in 1956 in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Betty showed great compassion for others from a young age. She helped with the family business, a market on Jackson Street renowned for beef jerky, and played with other children in the parks and in the alleys of Chinatown.
“We didn’t really have the means to travel as a family,” Harry said. “Chinatown was our universe and Betty, who was tall for her age, excelled in sports and loved playing with other kids.”
Betty attended Jean Parker Elementary School, went to George Washington High School and then to San Francisco City College, but it was because the Ong family did not travel much that Betty looked for a career in travel, her brother said. She worked as a baggage handler at San Francisco International Airport and became a flight attendant for American Airlines in 1987.
“On midnight and red eye flights, Betty would just walk up and down the aisles making sure everyone was comfortable,” Harry said. “She really took care of the kids and helped parents and was just a wonderful flight attendant and person.”
‘Something Happening in New York’
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Harry’s wife woke him up. “There is something happening in New York,” she said. Harry turned on the TV in time to see the second plane hit the World Trade Center.
“It was then I understood what was happening, that this was an attack and that those were passenger jets,” he says.
Betty and her sister Cathie Ong-Herrera had plans for lunch upon Betty’s arrival in Los Angeles that day. Before Cathie knew that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center, she got a call from her brother Harry, telling her to turn on the news.
“Cathie said to me, ‘You know, Betty is supposed to be flying today,’” Harry recalled. “It was then that we both hung up and started to call Betty. But there was no answer. We kept calling her phone, leaving voice messages saying, ‘We hope you are OK’ and ‘Please call us as soon as you can,’ but no calls came. I called American Airlines a lot that day and they kept saying she was not on the manifest. Around 7 p.m. that evening, we got a call back confirming that she was on Flight 11.
“I called our mom and dad after that, which was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.”
‘What Betty Would Have Wanted’
Betty’s memory carries on through the foundation formed in her name. The Betty Ann Ong Foundation, founded by her siblings, “serves to educate children to the positive benefits of lifelong physical activity and healthy eating habits and to provide opportunities for children to experience the great outdoors so that they can grow to become healthy, strong and productive individuals.” The foundation also sponsors kids to attend the Western Wellspring Adventure Camp outside Los Angeles.’
In 2011, after her siblings and the foundation petitioned for many years for San Francisco to recognize Betty, Mayor Ed Lee, the Board of Supervisors, San Francisco Recreation & Parks Department, Department of Public Works and the San Francisco Parks Alliance dedicated the Betty Ann Ong Chinese Recreation Center at Mason and Washington streets in Chinatown.
“Betty Ann Ong Chinese Recreation Center will serve the growing number of families in San Francisco by bringing a state-of-the-art facility into one of our oldest and most historic neighborhoods,” Lee said.
The rec center is one more way to ensure we “never forget.”
“The rec center is such a great way to carry on her legacy of helping people and her love of children and seniors,” Harry said. “We do annual parties during the holidays and special occasions, and it’s wonderful to see all the kids and seniors come out. A lot of families live in SRO apartments in Chinatown, and to see them enjoy the community in one space is what Betty would have wanted.”
If you would like to donate to the Betty Ann Ong Foundation, you can send a check, made payable to Betty Ann Ong Foundation, to:
The Betty Ann Ong Foundation FEIN 56-2305946
P.O. Box 1108
You can also donate online via Paypal.
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- Dorothea Lange’s Steep Ravine: How an American Photography Icon Found Her Sanctuary in Marin
Richard Wright is a writer from Marin whose work has appeared in San Francisco Magazine, SOMA, 944, The Olympian and numerous online publications. He has an MFA from St. Mary’s College of California in creative writing and lives in Sausalito with his wife, Stephanie.