Flight 11 Attendants Became Unsung 9/11 Heroes with Their Calls from the Plane


As America and the world remember the impact of 9/11 on the 17th anniversary of the terror attack, they also pay honor to the bravery and sacrifice of countless heroes.

Many of those individuals would also be listed among the more than 3,000 killed that morning in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Betty Ong and Madeline Amy Sweeney were among them.

The two were flight attendants on American Airlines Flight 11 out of Boston, one of two hijacked passenger jets that would bring down the World Trade Center towers.

After recognizing that there had been a hijacking and she was unable to communicate with the cockpit, Ong called the American Airlines operations line to provide valuable information from the scene of the brutal attack.

Ong would go on to spend her last moments alive describing events that would allow officials to better understand the hijacking and identify victims.

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Sweeney, another flight attendant aboard the doomed flight, made a series of calls from her position. Though her initial communication was poised, the last call she made captured the terror of those on board.

“I see water and buildings,” she told her ground manager when asked where the plane was. “Oh my God! Oh my God!”

Minutes earlier, she had informed the airline crew on the ground that the plane had been hijacked and two of her colleagues were stabbed.

“A hijacker also cut the throat of a business-class passenger, and he appears to be dead,” Sweeney said.

Flight 11 took off a minute before 8 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001. About 20 minutes later, it was already far off its intended route and ground control heard its first sign of distress.

A few minutes later, officials on the ground heard one of the hijackers give a chilling command.

“Nobody move, please,” he said. “We are going back to the airport. Don’t try to make any stupid moves.”

It was around that time that authorities believe Mohammad Atta took control of the plane and crashed it into the north tower.

During the same period, Ong was in the rear of the plane, describing as best as she could the events playing out on board.

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“We’re supposed to go to L.A. and the cockpit’s not answering their phone,” she began.

Throughout the recorded conversation that followed, Ong often struggled to communicate amid the confusion, but remained on the line to provide updates that proved crucial in the investigation that followed.

“And the cockpit is not answering their phone, and there’s somebody stabbed in business class, and there’s — we can’t breathe in business class,” she said. “Somebody’s got mace or something.”

Other operations staff joined the call in an attempt to better understand the situation. When one man suggested the pilots might not be responding because they were trying to maintain a “sterile cockpit,” Ong said she suspected the worst.

“I think the guys are up there,” she said. “They might have gone there — jammed the way up there, or something. Nobody can call the cockpit. We can’t even get inside. Is anybody still there?”

Staff on the ground can be heard discussing the situation on the call, but Ong cut out shortly after saying she would remain on the line.

“I think we might have lost her,” one woman on the call acknowledged a short time later.

With hundreds gathered in her San Francisco neighborhood a little more than a week after the 9/11 attacks, then-Mayor Willie Brown declared Sept. 21 Betty Ong Day.

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Chris Agee is an American journalist with more than 15 years of experience in a wide range of newsrooms.
Chris Agee is an American journalist with more than 15 years of experience in a variety of newsroom settings. After covering crime and other beats for newspapers and radio stations across the U.S., he served as managing editor at Western Journalism until 2017. He has also been a regular guest and guest host on several syndicated radio programs. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona, with his wife and son.
Texas Press Association, Best News Writing - 2012
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