20 Years Later: Family remembers 9/11 hero and Bay Area native, Betty Ong

"It's always so stressful to relive that day and talk about that day. It's hard."

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Monday, September 13, 2021
Family remembers Betty Ong, 9/11 hero and Bay Area native
It has been two decades since the 9/11 attacks, and we remember the lives lost and the heroes including Betty Ong.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- In light of the 20 years since the 9/11 attacks, we're remembering the lives lost and looking back at how that day changed lives here in the Bay Area.

One Bay Area man knows the pain of losing someone all too well. Harry Ong is the brother of Betty Ong, the flight attendant who made the first call to American Airlines about the chaos erupting on flight 11.

We not only sit down with Harry but bring him the words of Vanessa Minter, who was on the other end of Betty's call that fateful day.

"It's always so stressful to relive that day and talk about that day. It's hard. But I do it because I respect and honor. And I miss her so much. I just do it for her." says Harry standing beside the plot of land where Betty is buried. He is not a man who seeks attention but mustered the strength to meet at Cypress Lawn Memorial Park in Colma.

"This is Betty's final resting place. The thigh bone that we got back from her is here."

The past two decades has not been easy without his little sister, Betty. Her big brother, calls it "20 years of anguish and pain and daily reminders." Their own father would be glued to the television set, watching cable TV for years until his death in 2007 hoping Betty was somehow alive.

RELATED: 'Eyewitness to 9/11: Behind the Lens' reveals untold stories, rare video of America's darkest day

Betty and her fellow attendants and crew left Boston's Logan airport on American Airlines flight 11 on September 11, 2001. Fifteen minutes en route to Los Angeles, Betty made a heroic call.

"The cockpit is not answering their phones. There's someone stabbed in business class. We can't breathe in business class. Somebody's got mace or something." you can hear Betty say.

Betty was the first person to make contact with American Airlines, relaying the chaos that unraveled when their plane was hijacked by terrorists. Little did she or many of the others on board know their fate as the first plane to crash into the World Trade Center.

Betty's voice in the more than 20 minute call is steady and calm. When asked where she gets that strength from, Harry takes a beat to think about it.

WATCH: California man whose wife died on 9/11 remembers Flight 93 as '1st victory against hate'

Jack Grandcolas, whose wife Lauren died on 9/11, says Flight 93 was the "first victory against hate" and likely prevented a crash at the White House.

He admits there is some fear in her voice but says "That's just her. She has this composure and different qualities in her personality."

Betty is described as kind and loving, yet comical and friendly. But Harry shared another side of her as well. A time when her family's jerky shop in Chinatown was targeted by criminals in the 80's and Betty, who was working the register at the time refused to turn over any cash to the culprit. Even at gunpoint.

On the other end of that final call Betty made on 9/11, more than 700 miles away, was Vanessa Minter. Who at the time was based in Raleigh, North Carolina as an American Airlines agent. She was the first person on the ground to be alerted to the terror aboard Flight 11.

"When this call fell into my lap, there was an immediate difference about this phone call....and hear her final words. I remember her saying, it's okay. We're landing. We're making a turn to land. The last thing she said to me was, please pray for us. And I lost it." says Minter, who sat down with an exclusive interview with I-Team reporter Jonah Kaplan from KGO-TV's sister station WTVD in Raleigh.

"You have to understand, Betty Ong, to me was the hero. I'm getting emotional so bear with me here. She was the hero, not me," says Vanessa to Jonah.

RELATED: 9/11/01 Timeline: How the September 11, 2001 attacks unfolded

When we read those words to Harry, it is hard for him not to be emotionally touched.

"That's the first time I've heard those words from Vanessa. The last contact was in 01' with a letter from her. She was a very private person who didn't want to be contacted or to discuss anything. To know now. 20 years later that her tribute to Betty and to the others...it's very meaningful. That you were able to get a quote from her and tell us this." says Harry, mist in his eyes.

Betty's heroism was recognized by the 9/11 commission and locally by Reverend Norman Fong who lobbied tirelessly to name this community center after Betty. Thousands in Chinatown are served every year because of the center and Betty Ong foundation. It's the same community where she grew up and loved-- and yearned to leave.

"Betty developed an urge to just travel. Just go out and see the world. That's why I believe she became a flight attendant." This can be seen in an indoor memorial in her honor. Harry and the Ong family placed photos and mementos from her travels inside the glass case at Cypress.

RELATED: 'It feels like it was yesterday': Survivor of 9/11 terrorist attacks shares his harrowing escape from 105th floor of the World Trade Center

Harry hopes his little sister's life and death can continue to serve a purpose to all who remember 9/11.

"What I'd like the world to know. Especially in this time of divisiveness and hatred for one another by a lot of people is that the goodness of 9/11 and the aftermath is so positive. I wish we can regain a lot of those thoughts and feelings for each other and humanity."

To learn more about the Betty Ong Foundation, click here.