On September 11, 2001 Cathie Ong-Herrera was awakened in her Bakersfield home by a call from her brother Harry Ong in San Francisco.
Together on the phone they watched the horror unfold until he asked Cathie, “Where’s Betty Ann?”
Betty Ann was their baby sister, an American Airlines flight attendant who grew up in San Francisco's Chinatown.
“She’s coming to LA today,” Cathie answered. “I’m meeting her at LAX to plan our girls-only trip to Hawaii.”
That's when Harry Ong got quiet.
“What’s wrong?” Cathie asked.
One of the planes that crashed into the Twin Towers was an American Airlines flight that had departed from Boston.
Their conversation went silent. Panic and fear overwhelmed them. Quietly-- and what seemed way too slowly -- they came up with a plan.
They hung up and started calling Betty Ann’s cell phone.
The line was busy, which gave them comfort. She must be trying to call us. She’s okay, they reasoned.
They headed to their parent’s home in San Francisco to gather with the entire family. While Cathie was driving she learned the news: Betty Ann was on one of the planes that had crashed.
Cathie pulled off the road and looked at the sky. “Why?” she yelled over and over. “Why? Why?” Her baby sister was gone.
For weeks, Cathie waited for her phone to ring, hoping Betty Ann would call to apologize for hitting her head and forgetting to call.
Betty Ann’s mother missed her most when she is cooking. When Betty Ann would come home to visit, she would pop her head into the kitchen and say every time “What’s for dinner mom?”
Her father refused to go to bed, instead dozing on the recliner in front of the TV.
When Cathie urged him to get some sleep, he refused. “What if there is news about Betty and I miss it?” he would ask. “I have to stay here.”
He suffered a heart attack and died soon after.
Over time, Cathie and her family learned of the crucial role Betty Ann played in the moments leading up to the crash.
Betty Ann was the first voice anyone on the ground heard that day warning of the problems on Flight 11, a chilling record that takes us inside the plane that was about to become a bomb, filled with innocent people.
Calmly and with purpose she told the confused and disbelieving ground reservationist that the plane had been hijacked, that two crew members had been stabbed and a passenger was shot.
For years Cathie replayed in her head what Betty Ann’s last moments must have been like, until a counselor told her, “Betty only died once…you are killing her over and over in your mind and that’s not helping anyone.”
Now the Ongs are focused on honoring her memory.
They have established the Betty Ann Ong Foundation, which helps disadvantaged children in the Bakersfield area by sponsoring their enrollement at a nearby summer camp.
Betty Ann’s uniform and flight wings will be donated to the new 9-11 museum in New York.
This September 11, the family will gather at ground zero for the remembrance. It’s not an anniversary says Cathy. That’s too happy a word.
But they will be there to honor Betty Ann and all of the others who died on that day.