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9/11, 20 years later: Remembering Betty Ann Ong, the flight attendant who alerted a nation


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Published on September 12, 2021 7:00 AM
On a spring day in 2002, Cathie Ong-Herrera received a call from the New York City Medical Examiner's office. At the base of where the North Tower of the World Trade Centre used to stand, she was told, a two-inch thigh bone and some soft tissue had been recovered and identified. They matched the DNA of Cathie's younger sister, Betty Ann Ong.

These were all that was left of Ong, a 45-year-old Chinese-American flight attendant who was the first to alert authorities of the attacks of Sept 11, 2001, when nearly 3,000 lives were lost.

Five hijackers took control of American Airlines Flight 11, one of four hijacked planes that day, and the Boeing 767, heading out of Boston and intended for Los Angeles, detoured instead to New York. During the last 25 minutes of her life, Ong, using the aircraft's emergency line to speak to ground crews, calmly provided information about the hijackers and injuries to passengers and crew. When the jet crashed into the North Tower at 8:46am – the first of two planes to fly into the towers – at 755km an hour (470mph), Ong, along with the other 10 crew members and 81 passengers, died.

But her early, vital and detailed account of what was occurring helped the US government realise the extent of the day's attacks by al-Qaeda. The Federal Aviation Administration took the unprecedented step of grounding flights nationwide...


American Airlines Flight 11 was a domestic passenger flight that was hijacked by five al-Qaeda terrorists on September 11, 2001, as part of the September 11 attacks. Lead hijacker Mohamed Atta deliberately crashed the plane into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City, killing all 92 people aboard and ensuring the deaths of 1,402 people at and above the aircraft's impact zone. The aircraft involved, a Boeing 767-223ER, registration N334AA, was flying American Airlines' daily scheduled morning transcontinental service from Logan International Airport in Boston to Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles. Fifteen minutes into the flight, the hijackers injured at least three people , forcibly breached the cockpit, and overpowered the captain and first officer. Atta, an al-Qaeda member and licensed commercial pilot, took over the controls. Air traffic controllers suspected that the flight was in distress because the crew was no longer responding. They realized the flight had been hijacked when Mohamed Atta's announcements for passengers were unintentionally transmitted to air traffic control. On board, flight attendants Amy Sweeney and Betty Ong contacted American Airlines, and provided information about the hijackers and injuries to passengers and crew.

The aircraft crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 08:46:40 local time. Countless people in the streets of New York City witnessed the strike, but few video recordings captured the moment. Documentary filmmaker Jules Naudet captured the only known footage of the initial impact from start to finish. Before the hijacking was confirmed, news agencies began to report on the incident and speculated that the crash had been an accident.

The impact and subsequent fire caused the North Tower to collapse 102 minutes after the crash, resulting in hundreds of additional casualties. During the recovery effort at the World Trade Center site, workers recovered and identified dozens of remains from Flight 11 victims, but many body fragments could not be identified.

The aircraft involved in the hijacking was a Boeing 767-223ER delivered to American Airlines in April 1987, with registration number N334AA. The capacity of the aircraft was 158 passengers, but the September 11 flight carried 81 passengers and 11 crew members. This was a light load at 58 percent capacity, but higher than the average load factor for Flight 11 on Tuesday mornings of 39 percent in the months preceding September 11. The crew members were Captain John Ogonowski , First Officer Thomas McGuinness Jr. , purser Karen Martin and flight attendants Barbara Arestegui, Jeffrey Collman, Sara Low, Kathleen Nicosia, Betty Ong, Jean Roger, Dianne Snyder, and Amy Sweeney.

All 92 people on board were killed, including David Angell , his wife Lynn Angell, and actress Berry Berenson, the widow of Anthony Perkins. Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane had been scheduled to be on the flight but arrived at the airport late. Actor Mark Wahlberg was also scheduled to be on the flight but canceled his ticket at the last minute. Actress Leighanne Littrell, wife of Backstreet Boys singer Brian Littrell, had also previously been booked on the flight but, like Wahlberg, changed her plans at the last minute.

Mohamed Atta, the ringleader of the attacks, and a fellow hijacker, Abdulaziz al-Omari, arrived at Portland International Jetport at 05:41 Eastern Daylight Time on September 11, 2001. At the Portland ticket counter, Atta asked ticket agent Mike Tuohey for his boarding pass for Flight 11. Tuohey told Atta he'd have to check in a second time when he reached Logan. Atta clenched his jaw and appeared on the verge of anger. He told Tuohey that he'd been assured he'd have 'one-step check-in.' Tuohey didn't budge or rise to Atta's hostility, and simply told him that he'd better hurry if he didn't want to miss the flight. Although Atta still looked cross, he and Omari left the ticket counter for the Portland airport's security checkpoint.

They boarded Colgan Air Flight 5930, which was scheduled to depart at 06:00 from Portland, Maine, and fly to Boston. Both hijackers had first class tickets with a connecting flight to Los Angeles; Atta checked in two bags, while Omari checked in none. When they checked in, the Computer-Assisted Passenger Prescreening System selected Atta for extra luggage scrutiny, but he boarded without incident.

The flight from Portland departed on time and arrived in Boston at 06:45. Three other hijackers, Waleed al-Shehri, Wail al-Shehri, and Satam al-Suqami, arrived at Logan Airport at 06:45, having left their rental car in the airport parking facility. At 06:52, Marwan al-Shehhi, the hijacker pilot of United Airlines Flight 175, made a call from a pay phone in Logan Airport to Atta's cell phone. This call was apparently to confirm that the attacks were ready to begin.

Boston, Massachusetts Since they were not given boarding passes for Flight 11 in Portland, Atta and Omari checked in and went through security in Boston. Suqami, Wail al-Shehri, and Waleed al-Shehri also checked in for the flight in Boston. Wail al-Shehri and Suqami each checked one bag; Waleed al-Shehri did not check any bags. CAPPS selected all three for a detailed luggage check. As the CAPPS' screening was only for luggage, the three hijackers did not undergo any extra scrutiny at the passenger security checkpoint.

First Officer Lynn Howland had just arrived in Boston after copiloting the flight from San Francisco that would be redesignated American Flight 11. As she walked off the aircraft and entered the passenger lounge, Atta approached her and asked if she'd be flying the plane back across the country. When Howland told him she just brought the aircraft in, Atta turned his back and walked away. As he boarded Flight 11, Atta asked a gate agent whether the two bags he'd checked earlier in Portland had been loaded onto the plane. In the rushed check-in after the flight from Portland, airline officials did not load Atta's bags on Flight 11.

By 07:40, all five hijackers were aboard the flight, scheduled to depart at 07:45. Atta sat in business class seat 8D with al-Omari in 8G and Suqami in 10B. Waleed and Wail al-Shehri sat in first class seats 2B and 2A. Shortly before takeoff, American Airlines flight service manager Michael Woodward walked aboard for a final check. He briefly passed Atta, making note of this passenger's brooding expression, and then left the plane. At 07:46, one minute behind schedule, the aircraft received clearance to push back from Gate B32, and was cleared to taxi to the runway at 07:50. The aircraft began its takeoff run from Logan International Airport at 07:59 from runway 4R.

Hijacking 'Okay, my name is Betty Ong. I'm Number 3 on Flight 11. Our Number 1 got stabbed. Our purser is stabbed. Nobody knows who stabbed who and we can't even get up to business class right now because nobody can breathe. And we can't get to the cockpit, the door won't open.' - Flight attendant Betty Ong to the American Airlines emergency line. The 9/11 Commission estimated that the hijacking began at 08:14, when the pilots stopped responding to requests from the Boston Air Route Traffic Control Center . At 08:13:29, as the aircraft was passing over central Massachusetts at 26,000 feet , the pilots responded to a request from Boston ARTCC to make a 20-degree turn to the right. At 08:13:47 Boston ARTCC told the pilots to ascend to a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet but received no response. At 08:16, the aircraft leveled off at 29,000 feet and shortly thereafter deviated from its scheduled path.

At 8:17:59, flight controllers at Boston Center heard a brief, unknown sound on the radio frequency used by Flight 11 and other nearby flights. They didn't know where it came from, and they couldn't be certain, but it possibly sounded like a scream. Boston ARTCC made multiple attempts to talk to Flight 11 without reply, and at 08:21, someone in the cockpit stopped transmitting the flight's Mode-C transponder signal. At 8:23 and 8:25, several times, Aircraft Communication Addressing and Reporting System tried to contact the flight. One ACARS message read, 'Good morning, ATC looking for you on 135.32', the other read, 'Plz contact Boston Center ASAP. They have lost radio contact and your transponder signal.' Flight 11 didn't reply.

Reports from flight attendants According to flight attendants Amy Sweeney and Betty Ong, who contacted American Airlines during the hijacking, the hijackers had stabbed flight attendants Karen Martin and Barbara Arestegui and slashed the throat of passenger Daniel Lewin. The hijackers might have used a predetermined signal: when the pilots turned off the Fasten Seatbelt signs. It is unknown how the hijackers gained access to the cockpit; FAA rules at the time required that the doors remain closed and locked during flight. Ong said she thought that the hijackers had 'jammed their wa'y in.

The commission suggested they attacked the flight attendants to get a cockpit key, to force one of them to open the cockpit door, or to lure the captain or first officer out of the cockpit. It is believed that one or more of the hijackers, possibly the brothers Wail and Waleed al-Shehri, made the first move, attacking Martin and Arestegui. Sweeney said that Martin was badly injured and being given oxygen. Sweeney and Ong said Arestegui's injures weren't as serious. Ong said she heard loud arguing after the hijackers entered the cockpit. It is believed that the hijackers either killed or incapacitated Ogonowski and McGuinness. Sweeney said that one of the hijackers had shown her a device with red and yellow wires that appeared to be a bomb. Ong and Sweeney said that the coach passengers didn't seem to fully understand the peril, and were under the impression that there was a routine medical emergency in the front section of the plane, and that the other flight attendants were helping passengers and finding medical supplies. Ong said Lewin appeared to be dead. Sweeney said that Suqami was the one who had attacked Lewin. Lewin was seated in 9B, and Suqami sat directly behind him in 10B.

One assumption is that Suqami attacked Lewin, unprovoked, to frighten other passengers and crew into compliance. Alternatively, Lewin, an American-Israeli Internet entrepreneur who understood Arabic, and had served as an officer in the elite Sayeret Matkal special operations unit of the Israel Defense Forces, may have attempted to stop the hijacking, and confront one of the hijackers in front of him, unaware Suqami was behind him. Lewin is believed to be the first fatality in the 9/11 attacks. During a four-minute call to the American Airlines operations center, Ong provided information about lack of communication with the cockpit, lack of access to the cockpit, and that she thought someone had sprayed Mace in the business class cabin. She also provided the seat locations of the hijackers, which later helped investigators to determine their identities.

Hijacker's transmissions

Mohamed Atta at 08:24 MENU0:00 Mohamed Atta's first and second announcements, heard by ATC at 08:24 Problems playing this file? See media help. At 08:24:38, a hijacker's voice, believed to be Atta, broadcast to Boston ARTCC. Air traffic controllers heard Atta announce, 'We have some planes. Just stay quiet and you'll be O.K. We are returning to the airport.' At 08:24:56 he announced, 'Nobody move. Everything will be okay. If you try to make any moves, you'll endanger yourself and the airplane. Just stay quiet.'

As Atta spoke English fluently, he likely made the transmissions. It's also possible that Atta's seatmate, al-Omari, accompanied him into the cockpit. Apparently, Atta tried to make an announcement to the passengers, but keyed the wrong switch and instead his voice was picked up and recorded by air traffic controllers. After Atta's transmissions and the inability to contact the airliner, air traffic controllers at Boston ARTCC realized the flight was being hijacked. At 08:26, the plane turned south. At 08:32, the Federal Aviation Administration Command Center in Herndon, Virginia, notified FAA headquarters.

Mohamed Atta at 08:33 MENU0:00 Mohamed Atta's third announcement at 08:33 Problems playing this file? See media help. At 08:33:59, Atta announced a third and final transmission: 'Nobody move, please. We are going back to the airport. Don't try to make any stupid moves.' At 08:37:08, the pilots of United Airlines Flight 175 verified Flight 11's location and heading to flight control.

Fighter jets dispatched Boston ARTCC bypassed standard protocols and directly contacted the North American Aerospace Defense Command Northeast Air Defense Sector in Rome, New York. NEADS called on two F-15 fighter jets at Otis Air National Guard Base in Mashpee, Massachusetts, to intercept. Officials at Otis spent a few minutes getting authorization for the fighters to take off. Atta completed the final turn towards Manhattan at 08:43. The order to dispatch the fighters at Otis was given at 08:46, and the F-15s took off at 08:53, roughly seven minutes after American Airlines Flight 11 had already crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Of the four hijacked aircraft on 9/11, the nine minutes of advance notification about the hijacking of Flight 11 was the most time that NORAD had to respond before the aircraft crashed into its intended target.

Crash 'We are in rapid descent ... we are all over the place. Oh, my God, we are too low!' Amy Sweeney, flight attendant aboard Flight 11, moments before the crash At 08:46:40 Atta intentionally crashed American Airlines Flight 11 into the northern façade of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The aircraft, traveling about 404 knots and carrying about 10,000 U.S. gallons of jet fuel, hit between floors 93 and 99 of the North Tower.

A high-rise tower covered by debris on two of its faces. In the lower left corner is a similar building. Jules Naudet filmed the impact of Flight 11 as it crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Witnesses saw the plane flying at low altitude over Manhattan and thought the aircraft was in distress. Lieutenant William Walsh of the FDNY witnessed the aircraft:

We were under the impression – he looked like he was going down, but we didn't hear any mechanical difficulty. We couldn't figure out why an American Airlines plane would be so low in downtown Manhattan. We sort of expected him to veer off and go into the Hudson. But he just rose a little bit, his altitude, leveled off, and he was headed straight for the Trade Center. So just before he got to the Trade Center, it seemed as though he gained power. We were just watching this airplane on target for the World Trade Center. All of a sudden, boom! He disappears into the Trade Center.

The damage caused to the North Tower destroyed any means of escape at the impact zone or above it. All stairwells and elevators from floor 92 to at least floor 99 up were rendered impassable, killing or trapping 1,344 people. According to the Commission Report, hundreds were killed instantly by the impact; the rest were trapped and died from the subsequent fire and smoke, the eventual collapse, or after jumping or falling from the building. Elevator shafts channeled burning jet fuel through the building, allowing some of it to explode in the Skylobbies on floors 78 and 22, and in the main lobby at the base of the tower.

photograph of aircraft landing gear found amid debris. Landing gear from Flight 11 found at West and Rector streets Jules Naudet, a French cameraman, and Pavel Hlava, a Czech immigrant, videotaped the crash. A webcam set up by Wolfgang Staehle at an art exhibit in Brooklyn to take images of Lower Manhattan every four seconds also captured images of Flight 11 crashing into the North Tower.

News organizations at first reported an explosion or incident at the World Trade Center. CNN broke into a commercial at 08:49 with the headline 'World Trade Center Disaster'. Carol Lin, who was the first anchor to break the news of the attacks, said:

Yeah. This just in: you are looking at, obviously, a very disturbing live shot there. That is the World Trade Center, and we have unconfirmed reports this morning that a plane has crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. CNN Center right now is just beginning to work on this story, obviously calling our sources and trying to figure out exactly what happened, but clearly something relatively devastating happening this morning there on the south end of the island of Manhattan. That is once again, a picture of one of the towers of the World Trade Center.

Later, in an on-air phone call from his office at the CNN New York bureau, CNN vice president of finance Sean Murtagh reported that a large passenger commercial jet had hit the World Trade Center. Eventually, other television networks interrupted regular broadcasting with news of the crash. President George W. Bush was arriving at Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida. Initial news reports speculated that the crash may have been an accident until United Airlines Flight 175 was flown into the South Tower 17 minutes after Flight 11 made impact.


The names of Flight 11's crew are on Panel N-74 of the National September 11 Memorial's North Pool. The passengers' names are on that panel and four other adjacent ones. After the crash, the North Tower burned for 102 minutes before collapsing at 10:28. Although the impact itself caused extensive structural damage, the long-lasting fire ignited by jet fuel was blamed for the structural failure of the tower. In addition to the aircraft passengers and building occupants, hundreds of rescue workers also died when the tower collapsed. Cantor Fitzgerald L.P., an investment bank on floors 101–105 of the One World Trade Center, lost 658 employees, considerably more than any other employer.

Rescue workers at the World Trade Center site began to discover body fragments from Flight 11 victims within days of the attack. Some workers found bodies strapped to airplane seats and discovered the body of a flight attendant with her hands bound, suggesting the hijackers might have used plastic handcuffs. Within a year, medical examiners had identified the remains of 33 victims who had been on board Flight 11. They identified two other Flight 11 victims, including purser Karen Martin, in 2006, while other unrelated body fragments were discovered near Ground Zero around the same time. In April 2007, examiners using newer DNA technology identified another Flight 11 victim. The remains of two hijackers, potentially from Flight 11, were also identified and removed from Memorial Park in Manhattan. The remains of the other hijackers have not been identified and are buried with other unidentified remains at this park.

Suqami's passport survived the crash and landed in the street below. Soaked in jet fuel, it was picked up by a passerby who gave it to a New York City Police Department detective shortly before the South Tower collapsed. Investigators retrieved Mohamed Atta's luggage, which had not been loaded onto the flight. In it, they found Omari's passport and driver's license, a videocassette for a Boeing 757 flight simulator, a folding knife, and pepper spray. In a recording, a few months later in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda's leader, Osama bin Laden, took responsibility for the attack. The attack on the World Trade Center exceeded even bin Laden's expectations: he had expected only the floors above the plane strikes to collapse. The flight recorders for Flight 11 and Flight 175 were never found.

After the attacks, the flight number for flights on the same route with the same takeoff time was changed to American Airlines Flight 25. These flights now use a Boeing 737-800 instead of a Boeing 767. An American flag is flown on the jet bridge of gate B32 from which Flight 11 departed Logan Airport.

In 2002, the first recipients of the annual Madeline Amy Sweeney Award for Civilian Bravery were Sweeney and Ong. Ogonowski also received a posthumous award. They were all residents of Massachusetts. Relatives of all three accepted the awards on their behalf.

On April 26, 2013, a piece of the wing flap mechanism from a Boeing 767 was discovered wedged between two buildings at Park Place, near where other landing gear parts were found. The onboard defibrillator from Flight 11 was found in 2014 during roadwork near Liberty Street.

At the National September 11 Memorial, the names of the 87 victims of Flight 11 are inscribed on the North Pool, on Panels N-1 and N-2, and Panels N-74 – N-76.

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