One sister’s heroic sacrifice, another sister’s dedication, 20 years after 9/11

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BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — Cathie Ong-Herrera will never retire. Can’t. She can quit her day job — already has, in fact — but she can never walk away from the sense of duty associated with an event that, like it or not, helps define her. 

Ong-Herrera is the living embodiment of the courage, resolve, grief and hope that endures 20 years after one of the most traumatic days in American history: The day 19 terrorists hijacked four commercial passenger jets and used them as missiles against some of the country’s most visible and symbolic landmarks.

Sept. 11, 2001.

“Twenty years have gone by and  in many ways it doesn’t feel like it because you still experience the trauma of it every day,” Ong-Herrera said. “But when you think about how long Betty’s been gone and how you miss her, and all the events that have happened, it has been a long time.”

Ong-Herrera’s little sister, her best friend, was aboard the first of those missiles, American Airlines Flight 11. But Betty Ong, a flight attendant, was not a passive victim. She was able to connect by phone with an airline reservations agent on the ground and, in whispers from the plane’s back row, help identify the hijackers and essentially, warn the nation.

Ong-Herrera, a retired Bakersfield dental hygienist, would rather not be this beacon of remembrance. She would rather have a quiet, ordinary life. But her sister’s fate is in a very real sense her own. She, along with her brother Harry, are Betty’s champions, the ones who keep alive her memory — and by extension, the memory of 2,977 others who died on 9/11 and in the days that followed.

Betty Ong’s recorded phone conversation with the airline’s reservation operations is almost startling in its  matter-of-fact clarity.

“Okay, my name is Betty Ong,” she says in a taped conversation. “I’m number three on Flight 11. Our number one got stabbed. Our purser’s stabbed. Nobody knows who stabbed who and we can’t even get up in business class right now because nobody can breathe. And we can’t get to the cockpit. The door won’t open.”

Betty, who was 45, has determined that four hijackers have come from first-class seats: 2A, 2B, 9A and 9B. A wounded passenger — stabbed but possibly already dead — was in seat 10B, she said. The hijackers hit the cabin with some sort of spray that makes everyone’s eyes burn, and Betty said she was having trouble breathing.

The plane is flying erratically, she says. The transponder is dead and, oddly, the hijackers have not indicated whether they might have any demands. Now the plane is making a rapid descent, she says; now people in the cabin can see water and buildings. Now the plane is flying sideways. Sideways. “Pray for us,” Betty Ong tells the reservations agent.

“And that,” Ong-Herrera said, “was the first plane that went into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. … The 911 Commission, who was investigating events that day, proclaimed her an American hero.  Because she helped save many lives.”

Since that day, Ong-Herrera has given many speeches, including one to a graduating class of young FBI agents. The agency wanted them to see the face, hear the voice, of someone who loved a victim of terror. 

She has spoken to senators and governors, too. And children — dozens of times to children. One of those times stands out.

“Every year, someone comes up to me after my talk to them and they say profound things to me,” Ong-Herrera said. “One day after my presentation to the children, I was walking across the gym, and I could could hear the sound of pitter patter running across the gym. And a little hand slipped into mine and I looked and it was a little girl. She said to me, ‘It’s OK, I’ll be your little sister.’ It just choked me up. It makes everything we do worthwhile  in honor of Betty.”

Ong-Herrera sat through the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, who is among a handful of plotters who’ve been referred to as the 20th hijacker. Prosecutors played the tape of Betty’s phone call.

Ong-Herrera has been interviewed many times and consulted many times more. The pain has receded but never goes completely away. Her sense of duty may at times waver a little but that too stays with her. 

“It’s kind of a mixed bag of feelings,” she said. “On one hand, I want the world to know about my sister and her heroism and I think I learn something about myself from that experience.

“Sometimes afterward I want to turn the noise down. … It’s not that I don’t mean to speak, it’s just that it gets a little bit loud, it gets a little bit noisy and I’m just looking for some peace and quiet. But I do what I have to do because I want to be a spokesperson for my sister and also the events of September 11th.”

Betty’s name and character live on through the Betty Ong foundation, which helps children and seniors, people that Betty especially enjoyed. And through the Betty Ong Recreation Center, in San Francisco’s Chinatown, across the street from the Cable Car Museum. She grew up playing there as a child. In 2012, it was renamed in her honor.

Ong-Herrera, who moved to Bakersfield in 1990 with her husband, insurance broker Ed Herrera, has retired from her job as a dental hygienist. She and Ed live in Cambria part-time and operate a small business there with another couple.

“Well, in 20 years I have learned that pain and grief can peacefully coexist with all that brings you joy,” she said, “and all that you can be grateful for and all that deserves to be remembered and loved.”

In most ways, Kern County, like the rest of the nation, is back to its old self. The anger and apprehension are still there — they’re just, to a great extent, now directed at fellow Americans who reside on the other side of the country’s seemingly growing political and cultural chasm.

“I hope that we get our act together and really work things out,” she said. “I’m hoping that people in general have more compassion toward one another because we’re so divided today.”

In this climate of distrust and acrimony we would do well to remember the quiet courage of Betty Ong, the selfless dedication of her sister, Cathie Ong-Herrera, and spirit of unity their shared tragedy — our shared tragedy — once inspired.

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