American Airlines Flight Attendant Betty Ong became known to the world for her steely nerves aboard Flight 11 on Sept. 11, 2001. But her fellow flight attendants knew her as a fun-loving person and avid collector of Beanie Babies and Barbie dolls.
Sitting in a jump seat toward the rear of American Airlines Flight 11 as it hurtled toward the World Trade Center, Ong was in almost constant communication with officials on the ground as hijackers carried out a series of attacks that, by the end of the day, would leave nearly 3,000 dead. Her information let people on the ground know details about the hijackers, including their identities.
What had brought her to fly in the first place grew from a spark lit during her childhood, according to her brother, Harry Ong.
"We were pretty much confined to San Francisco Chinatown (while growing up)," Harry said. "In the '60s and '70s, that was our playground, our school, our library. That was everything."
After graduating from high school, Betty worked at a family-owned grocery store made famous for its specialty, beef jerky. After the family sold the store, Betty aspired to leave the area. So she signed up at a flight attendant school for American Airlines. She got in, and graduated in 1987.
Her career took her all over the world. As time passed, she started collecting Beanie Babies and Barbie dolls.
"She would use her ability to fly. She'd fly to Hong Kong, Japan, and she'd pick up first date issues (of the collectables)," Harry Ong said.
Her hobby got her colleagues hooked on collecting as well.
"That is what she lived for: Beanie Babies. She got so many flight attendants into it," he said. "We've had flight attendants tell us that when Betty was a flight attendant or a purser, that it would be a good flight."
On Sept. 11, 2001, Betty signed up to be a flight attendant on an extra flight out to Los Angeles, where she expected to have lunch with one of her sisters in advance of a vacation to Hawaii.
During her flight, hijackers took the plane over after injuring at least three people and forcing themselves into the cockpit, where they overpowered the plane's pilot and first officer.
From the back of the plane, Ong called American Airlines Operations through a reservations telephone.
"We're sitting in the back," Betty said, as heard in an audio recording of the phone conversation. "The cockpit is not answering. Somebody is stabbed in business class and, um, I think there's mace, we can't breathe (in business class). I don't know, I think we're getting hijacked."
The conversation would last for around 20 minutes, during which Ong identified where the hijackers were sitting on the plane. The conversation ended when the plane crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center.
After the crash, which was the first of the day, Harry received a phone call about it from one of his sisters. A few moments later, Harry was watching TV when "I saw a second plane coming into the television. And I said, 'Oh my God, this is something else.'"
"I saw a little side-line saying it was a plane from Boston to Los Angeles. My sister was silent, and she said, 'You're kidding me. I'm supposed to meet Betty in Los Angeles this afternoon,'" Harry said. "We called Betty, and said, 'Betty, wherever you are, call us.' We waited until 11 o'clock, our time in San Francisco, and she hadn't called.
"In the back of my mind, I knew she was on that flight, because she would have called back," he said.
American Airlines later confirmed that Betty Ong was on Flight 11, but they never shared details about her role in the event. A month later, at a ceremony honoring Ong in San Francisco attended by a room-full of flight attendants who traveled to San Francisco in Ong's memory, Harry was approached by an American Airlines employee.
"This lady came up to us and said her name was Nydia Gonzalez, and that she had spoken to Betty," Harry said.
In the conversation, Gonzalez — an operations specialist who talked to Betty Ong about the hijacking — said, "I just want to tell you that she was very brave. She was very calm," according to Harry.
"(Gonzalez said) 'She asked that we all pray for everyone on the plane,'" Harry Ong said. "That was the most distinctive thing she said to her, because she asked them to pray for everyone, not just her."
Betty Ong's role in Flight 11 created a legacy from coast to coast. She was one of the first recipients of the Amy Sweeney Bravery Award, awarded in Boston and named after another Flight 11 attendant who called the ground moments after Ong did. In 2001, then-San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown declared Sept. 21 "Betty Ong Day," and efforts are under way, with support of San Francisco's current mayor, to name a new, $21 million recreation park in San Francisco's Chinatown the "Betty Ann Ong Center of San Francisco."
But Betty's family has its own way of remembering her. Harry Ong recalls a visit to Andover shortly after Sept. 11 to collect Betty's things.
"When we went back to her apartment, we went up to her attic, and there were tons of Beanie Babies and Barbie dolls," Harry said. The family has maintained the collection. And after forwarding her mail to his address, "I've seen some of the fliers that have come from all over the world (from places) that she may have shopped at."
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