Family of SF flight attendant who told the world 9/11 started reacts to its co-architect’s death

It’s been nearly 21 years since flight attendant Betty Ong picked up an in-flight phone and essentially let the world know that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, had begun.

“The cockpit is not answering the phone and there’s somebody stabbed in business class,” she calmly told her American Airlines reservations desk. She stayed on the phone for another 23 minutes until 8:44 am — when her American Airlines Flight 11 smashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in Manhattan.

So much has changed in the decades since that to some people, especially younger ones, 9/11 is mostly a history lesson. But on Monday, the past flared to life again with word that a US military drone strike had killed al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri — the man who helped plan 9/11 and has been the face of the terrorist group since Osama Bin Laden was killed 11 years ago, also by American forces.

For families of 9/11 victims like San Francisco native Ong, the news ripped the scab open again. The only solace is that, after all these years, the families are somewhat used to that ripping. It happens with every anniversary of the deadliest terror attack ever on US soil, and every time their loved ones’ names come up.

The death of the second-most-notorious man responsible for the mass murder on 9/11 of nearly 3,000 Americans helps, the families say.

“I don’t know how anybody else feels. but when I heard today that al-Zawahiri was dead — in a way I’m relieved, but I’m still very sad that 9/11 happened at all,” said Ong’s sister Cathie Ong-Herrera, founder and president of the Betty Ann Ong Foundation in Bakersfield.

“I don’t know if bin Laden being killed or this guy being killed really helps heal anything, because we still have a lot of questions,” she said. , yes, I do find some relief. But we still need to know more about what happened.”

Dorothy Garcia Bachler, whose husband, Andy Garcia of Portola Valley, died on United Airlines Flight 93 from Newark to San Francisco, agreed. Flight 93 is commonly known as the “Flight of 40 Heroes,” for its passengers who charged the cockpit when they learned it was headed to the White House. The plane crashed into a field in Pennsylvania.

“This is a significant step forward, and is particularly significant to me and my family as well as the entire 9/11 community as we continue our years-long uphill battle for justice and accountability,” said Bachler, who is remarried and living in Southern California. “Many promises were made, but it is President Biden who has done what no other president has done in declassifying critical FBI investigative documents via executive order.

“These documents provide further proof of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s culpability in the 9/11 attacks. Our community asks President Biden to continue to stand with the 9/11 community and all those who seek justice by holding them accountable.”

The Ong family has chosen to channel its pain into helping disadvantaged children in Ong’s name through a community center in San Francisco, 10 years old this year, and the 18-year-old foundation in Bakersfield.

“Every year we have a summer camp for kids ages 8 to 16 or so here in Bakersfield, and when I tell the kids the story of my sister, you can hear a pin drop,” Ong said. I heard the sound of little pitter patter running up behind me, and I turned around and there was a little girl. She took my hand and said, ‘It’s OK, I’ll be your little sister.’”

She paused. “It really touched my heart,” Ong said quietly. “Kids still have that innocence in them, and seeing that while I work in my sister’s memory makes everything we do at the summer camp and in the community worth it.”

Cathie Ong’s husband, Ed Herrera, said on days like this, with news of al-Zawahiri’s death, he chooses to remember Betty Ong’s “sense of humor, and her courage.” She was 45 when she died.

“When we went to therapy after 9/11, the therapist said you have to remember Betty only died once, but in your mind she dies every day,” he said. in her name and having children become aware of the importance of loving, of fellowship.

Chronicle staff writer Sam Whiting contributed to this report.

Kevin Fagan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: kfagan@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @KevinChron

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