Cathie Ong-Herrera lost her younger sister in a killing so horrific and public that the whole world watched. Today, memories of their childhood linger.
“I still envision Betty swinging high on a swing,” said Ong-Herrera, recalling the San Francisco playground where they spent carefree hours.
Betty Ann Ong was a flight attendant on American Airlines Flight 11, the first plane hijacked on Sept. 11, 2001. Before it struck the World Trade Center’s North Tower, Ong made a phone call — becoming the first to alert anyone on the ground about that day’s terror.
An Everett lunch crowd listened Wednesday as Ong-Herrera spoke of her sister’s loving nature. She recalled how she learned Ong was a victim of the 9/11 attacks and how the tragedy haunted her life. Now, in honoring her sister, she’s helping others.
Ong-Herrera was keynote speaker for the “Voices of Victims” lunch at Angel of the Winds Arena. The event was a benefit for Victim Support Services, a local nonprofit that helps people affected by crime. Its services include victim advocacy, therapy for people who have experienced trauma, and a 24-hour hot line.
Before Ong-Herrera’s talk, Victim Support Services honored a local woman for her work with victims’ families navigating the criminal justice system.
Kameon Quillen received the agency’s Power of One Award. As victim advocate coordinator with the Snohomish County Prosecutor’s Office, Quillen guides people through what can be the most painful, stressful times of their lives.
With what Craig Matheson, a deputy prosecutor, described as “her sense of calm,” Quillen is there for grieving families in court, and in what can be contentious meetings with prosecutors as charges are explained. She informs families about ever-changing details — hearing dates and courtroom locations — to make sure they can be present throughout the grueling process.
Hired by the prosecutor’s office in 2012, Quillen was once a victim advocate with Families & Friends of Violent Crime Victims, the former name of Victim Support Services. “We couldn’t do our jobs without Victim Support Services,” Quillen said as she accepted the award.
After 9/11, victim support became a blessing for Ong-Herrera.
In her talk, the central California woman described that awful September day, and how she was able to find some peace in its aftermath. She’s now president and CEO of the Betty Ann Ong Foundation, which fosters healthy lifestyles for children.
Her sister, the youngest of four, loved kids and seniors, she said. Ong-Herrera learned that before boarding the plane in Boston that day, her sister had given a kiss on the cheek to a 78-year-old gate guard whose wife had recently died. “Betty cheered him up,” she said.
Ong-Herrera was asleep that morning when her brother called from San Francisco. “He said there’s a historical event taking place,” she recalled. While thinking Betty was on her way to Los Angeles to talk about a Hawaii trip they’d planned, “we were watching the death of our sister on TV,” she said.
By nightfall, they knew their dear sister was among nearly 3,000 people — there were 19 hijackers — who died in the attacks. Ong-Herrera remembers shouting “Why, why, why?”
In the nearly 18 years since, she has experienced shock and a numb existence. Early on, there were days of denial. She said she imagined “Betty was walking around New York with amnesia.” At times, she wished she had been on the plane. She couldn’t sleep and lost weight.
She found solace when she joined a grief support group funded by the California Victim Compensation Board, and later through visits to a psychologist who helped her cope with post-traumatic stress. When she told him about repeated visions of her sister’s body imploding, Ong-Herrera said the psychologist told her that “Betty died only once.”
Ong-Herrera is proud of her sister’s heroism. During the hijacking, Ong placed an Airfone call to an American Airlines reservation desk. She told about people on the plane being stabbed. A tape of that call provided valuable information to the 9-11 Commission.
“Somewhere in time, I chose not to be a victim twice,” Ong-Herrera told the crowd. She founded the Betty Ann Ong Foundation. And in 2011, a place where Betty had played as a child in San Francisco was renamed the Betty Ann Ong Chinese Recreation Center.
“I don’t think I’m completely healed,” Ong-Herrera said. “I live with it daily.”
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Victim Support Services
The Everett-based nonprofit Victim Support Services helps people affected by crime. Services include a 24-hour hot line (888-288-9221), one-on-one advocacy, trauma-informed therapy, and help navigating the criminal-justice system. Information: https://victimsupportservices.org/