At 8:20 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, Betty Ann Ong spoke in a low voice on an Airfone from the rear of American Airlines Flight 11.
Calm and businesslike, she told ground employees: “The cockpit’s not answering. Somebody’s stabbed in business class — and I think there’s mace … I think we’re getting hijacked.”
Betty, 45, had asked to work an extra shift on Flight 11, bound for Los Angeles out of Boston’s Logan Airport, so she could join her sister Cathie for a vacation in Hawaii. But 14 minutes after takeoff, the hijacked plane made a U-turn and headed toward New York City.
Thanks to Betty’s furtive phone call, the world knows that terrorists critically wounded flight attendants Karen Martin and Bobbi Arestegui, slit the throat of business-class passenger Daniel Lewin, and “jammed their way” into the cockpit, where they likely killed co-pilots John Ogonowski and Thomas McGuinness Jr.
We also know that they sprayed mace — which was prohibited on flights — and that passengers huddled in coach to escape the toxic fumes as the plane flew erratically toward the NYC skyline.
Authorities were able to quickly identify the five hijackers because Betty and fellow attendant Madeline Sweeney relayed the seat numbers of the men.
Ong’s last words: “Pray for us. Pray for us.” Flight 11 crashed into the World Trade Center’s North Tower at 8:46 a.m.
Many of the 25 flight attendants murdered on 9/11 showed tremendous courage. But the contribution of Betty, a Chinese American, shines even brighter 20 years later, amid a surge in hate crimes targeting Asian Americans.
“My sister gave her life for her country on Sept. 11,” Cathie Ong-Herrera, one of Betty’s two older sisters, told The Post, “and it’s very hurtful when you think about what’s going on today.”
Betty, whose mother emigrated from China, was born in San Francisco and was the youngest of four siblings.
Follow our 9/11 20th Anniversary coverage here:
With her slim figure and pretty face, Betty was once approached about modeling, but their mother frowned upon it. Instead, the then-22-year-old pitched in at her parents’ beef jerky factory, where signs of her steely nerves emerged.
“One day the store was being held up,” Cathie said. “Betty was out in front and had a gun held to her head. My mom said she never panicked. All she said was, ‘Dad, we’re being robbed.’”
They turned over the money and the robbers left. “She was never shook up.”
Nearly a decade later, in 1987, Betty was driving on US 101, south of San Francisco, when she saw a Honda get clipped by a speeding pickup and roll over twice.
Betty and another motorist immediately pulled over to help.“‘I know you! I know you!’”Jo Ellen Chew, the Honda’s driver, recalled Betty telling her. It turned out the two had met a month before at a local bowling alley.
“Courage, kindness, compassion,” Chew told The Post of Betty. “Most people would just pass by. But to stop and run up to me? A miracle!”
Betty had longed to travel since she was a kid — sometimes hanging out at San Francisco International Airport just to watch the planes take off — but her parents were always too busy working. As a flight attendant, she was able to take her sisters to places like China, Japan, Hawaii, Canada and England.
“Betty often flew nonstops to San Francisco in order to see her family,” said Michelle Brawley Ferragamo, a co-worker. The rest of the crew might mention dinner plans, but Betty would say, ‘Have fun — I’m going home.’”
On Sept. 11, 2001, when news broke of the first plane flying into the World Trade Center, Betty’s siblings tried desperately to reach her. At first, airline staff assured them she was not on Flight 11.
But then the family heard about a brave attendant who had provided information from the plane. “I said to myself, ‘That has to be Betty,’” Cathie recalled.
They learned more about Betty’s heroism two weeks later at her memorial — where Chew, the driver she had helped, sang Whitney Houston’s “Hero.”
A woman introduced herself to Cathie as Nydia Gonzalez, an American Airlines employee. “I’m the person who spoke to your sister [from the ground],” she told Cathie.
“You need to be very proud of your sister. She provided a lot of information very calmly.”
That’s when the Ong family learned about a recording of Betty’s conversation with American Airlines ground crew.
When they asked to hear it, Cathie said, the airline said the FBI wouldn’t allow it.
“I was angry,” Cathie said. “We wanted to know the truth of what happened to our sister.”
A call to Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts got results, she recalled. “The next day, American Airlines called me and asked, ‘When and where do you want to listen to Betty’s tape?’”
The family listened in dismay as the recording revealed that the ground crew did not immediately grasp the seriousness of Betty’s call and kept asking the same questions, wasting precious time. While the call was maddening, the family is glad it was captured on tape.
“I’m very thankful that we were able to know the last few minutes of Betty’s life,” sister Gloria Ong said.
In 2004, the Ong family created a foundation in Betty’s honor. It funds summer camp for kids and social programs for seniors at the Betty Ann Ong Chinese Recreation Center in San Francisco.
“We continue to keep her legacy alive by the work we’re doing,” Cathie said. “We want to mirror who Betty was.”