NY Times

January 28, 2004

A Calm Voice as Disaster Unfolded in the Sky



WASHINGTON, Jan. 27 รณ Betty Ann Ong, a veteran flight attendant for American Airlines, could not have sounded much calmer on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, as she tried to describe the mayhem aboard Flight 11.

"The cockpit is not answering the phone," she said from a jump seat at the back of the Boeing 767, calling to the ground from one of the crew phones that she would normally use to communicate with other crew members on the plane. "There is somebody stabbed in business class. They can't breathe in business class. They've got Mace or something."

A tape of a four-minute portion of the 20-minute phone call received at the airline's reservation centre in Cary, N.C., at 8:20 a.m., was played on Tuesday at a hearing of the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, the first time the recording was heard in public.

The panel's chairman, Thomas H. Kean, said the commission decided to allow the public to hear the tape as a demonstration of the "heroism" of Ms. Ong and the "duty, courage, selflessness and love" that was evident in the midst of the chaos of Sept. 11.

While the tape was difficult to understand at times, it clearly conveyed the situation of Ms. Ong and most of the passengers and other crew members forced to the back of the plane, with at least two flight attendants and a passenger stabbed and dying, and with some sort of chemical released into the air in the front of the plane.

"My name is Betty Ong," she said after reaching the reservations office in North Carolina, speaking quickly but in a tone that was remarkably calm and lucid. "I'm on Flight 11." She explained that she had been forced to the back of the jet, which was hijacked shortly after leaving Boston on a flight to Los Angeles. The plane later crashed into the World Trade Center.

She described the stabbing of her co-workers and said the cockpit door was locked, with at least some of the hijackers inside. "Our first-class galley attendant and our purser are stabbed," she said. "We can't get into the cockpit. The door won't open."

"Can anybody get to the cockpit?" she can be heard asking someone nearby on the plane. "We can't even get to the cockpit. Nobody can call the cockpit. We can't even get inside."

There were a few moments of silence. "Is anybody there?" Ms. Ong asked.

"Yes, we're here," said a reservations agent, who was not identified at Tuesday's hearing.

"I'm staying on the line as well," said Ms. Ong, a 14-year veteran of American Airlines and known to her friends as Bee.

A second tape was played of a conversation between an American Airlines supervisor, Nydia Gonzalez, who was speaking separately with Ms. Ong, and the airline's central operations center in Texas.

"You're doing a great job, just stay calm," Ms. Gonzalez told Ms. Ong, whose voice could not be heard in the second recording. "Is there a doctor on board?"

There was silence on the tape as Ms. Gonzalez listened to Ms. Ong's reply. "They don't have any doctors on board," Ms. Gonzalez told the operations center. "The aircraft is erratic again. She did say that the first-class passengers have been moved back to coach."

"Betty, talk to me, are you there, Betty?" Ms. Gonzalez can be heard asking.

Moments later, the phone line went dead. "I think we might have lost her," Ms. Gonzalez told the operations center.