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9/11 victim calmly describes hijack on haunting tape

WASHINGTON - The tape of Betty Ong's voice yesterday, alive and urgent yet amazingly calm, describing through the background buzz how a group of hijackers had stabbed two of her fellow flight attendants and taken over the first plane that slammed into the World Trade Center, silenced the congressional hearing room.

"The cockpit is not answering the phone. ... Someone's coming. ... Another one [passenger] got stabbed. ... Our First Class gal's stabbed, our purser has been stabbed. ... We can't get inside the cockpit," Ong told an American reservations specialist in a call from the rear phone aboard doomed American Airlines Flight 11.

There had been two days of official testimony from more than two dozen government administrators, aviation security experts and law enforcement personnel to the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

For the first time, panel members had nothing to say.

Ong's voice, captured on tape, broke only when the aircraft would suddenly plunge at the hands of inexperienced pilots who had taken over the cockpit.

The tape of her call offered some of the first insight and an all-too-real account of what was happening aboard the four hijacked airplanes that morning. It lasted until her plane flew with explosive force into a Trade Center tower.

While her conversation was the most dramatic new revelation at the hearing, commission investigators also released a nine-page report yesterday that said the hijackers probably sprayed Mace around the cockpit area on all four flights, apparently to keep passengers away, and that they convinced passengers to sit quietly on at least one of the flights by announcing over the intercom that there was a bomb on board.

Investigators believe the hijackers might have also used the autopilot and the Global Positioning System to target the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The report said the flight data recorder found buried in the rubble of the Pentagon indicated the pilot "had input autopilot instructions for a route to Reagan National Airport."

On Ong's flight, the hijackers appeared to have killed at least one passenger - and possibly two - before taking over the aircraft.

The tape recording picks up mid-sentence after an unidentified - and somewhat impatient - reservations specialist had answered the phone.

"The cockpit's not answering the phone," Ong tells the man. "Somebody's been stabbed in Business Class, and, um, I think there's Mace and we can't breathe and I don't know, I think we're getting hijacked."

The man replies, "What seat are you in?" apparently unaware that Ong is a flight attendant.

"Ma'am, are you there?"

"Yes," Ong says, who was having trouble hearing the man.

"What seat are you in?" the man asks, and then again forcefully, "Ma'am, what seat are you in?"

We're bound "for Boston, we're up in the air. The cockpit is not answering the phone," Ong says urgently.

The man replies, "What seat are you in?"

After a pause, Ong says, "I'm in my jump seat right now."

At that point the man seems to realize she is a flight attendant but still does not address what Ong has told him. He pauses and then asks, "What is your name?"

"OK, my name is Betty Ong. I'm an employee on Flight 11. The cockpit is not answering their phone. There is somebody stabbed in Business. We can't breathe in Business Class. I think they have Mace or something. ... Somebody's coming back. Can you hold on for one second? Somebody's coming back.

"OK, our Number One [flight attendant] got stabbed. Our purser is stabbed. There is no air in Business Class. No one can breathe. ... Our First Class gal and our purser has been stabbed. We can't get into the cockpit. The door won't open."

After a long pause, Ong says, "Hello?"

The man responds, "Yeah. I'm taking it down, all the information. "

About a minute later the man's boss, Nydia Gonzalez, takes over the phone call. Commission investigators praised Gonzalez and Ong yesterday for relaying as much information as they did, largely by way of a three-party conversation with the American Airlines emergency operations center in Dallas, with Gonzalez acting as an intermediary.

In a staff report to committee members, investigators said it was because of Ong's call that they learned about the Mace, which they said they also discovered among the belongings left in the suitcase of hijacker Mohammed Atta, who piloted Ong's plane.

Ong reported to Gonzalez that they had moved all the passengers out of First and Business classes, but that many passengers in the rear of the plane didn't know what was going on.

She was also the first person to alert authorities to who the hijackers were, saying she believed there were three or four hijackers and giving authorities the men's seat numbers.

Ong's voice is absent from the second part of the tape as Gonzalez conveys information between the emergency center and Ong. The emergency center was unable to hear Ong through the noise of the aircraft.

Gonzalez addressed the operations center clearly and briskly, but would then soften her voice and ask Ong, "What's going on now, honey?"

Ong told her there were no doctors on board to treat the flight attendants - one of whom she suspected was dead and the other who was still breathing with the aid of oxygen administered by the other flight attendants.

The aircraft was flying erratically, Ong reported, turning and plunging without warning. Gonzalez relayed to the center that the flight attendant suspected the pilots were not flying the airplane.

Twenty-three minutes later, the line went dead.

Gonzalez, unaware the plane had just crashed into the World Trade Center, says to the operations center, "I think we may have lost her."

Ong's brother and sister wiped away tears as they listened from the first row of seats in the hearing room, saying later that they felt relieved that the world would finally know that their sister, a 45-year-old flight attendant from San Francisco, was a consummate professional to the end, selfless and brave.

Harry Ong and Cathie Ong-Herrera said the tape gives them comfort, even though they were not allowed to hear it until almost six months after the attacks, and only then after Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts intervened. They were not allowed to talk publicly about the tape until yesterday.

"I believe that the tape belongs to the people," Ong's sister Cathie said. "She and the crew did the best they could. They were our first soldiers."

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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