Editor's Note: This story first appeared in The Eagle-Tribune on Feb. 20, 2002.
ANDOVER — Robert Landrum has been thinking a lot about his late fiancee this month.
Her February birthday and Valentine's Day were especially painful reminders of what might have been if not for the cruel intervention of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Landrum and American Airlines flight attendant Betty Ong, 45, had lived together in their North Main Street apartment for only about a year when Flight 11 slammed into the World Trade Center. She was among the first of thousands to die.
In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, Landrum said he found it difficult to talk about the loss of his fiancee and refused to answer his door for reporters. But a week after Ong was recognized as a hero by Gov. Jane M. Swift, Landrum opened up about the woman he planned to marry and what life has been like without her.
"When I'm grocery shopping or teaching, I'm always thinking of her, and I think, 'I can do this.' You don't realize you're always thinking about them until they're gone," said Landrum, 38, in the living room of his modest mill house.
"When you have someone you're close to, you're always thinking about the next time you're going to see them," he said. "That's magic. That's something very big."
The impact of Ong's tragic death is obvious not just in the words of Landrum, but in the American flags of all sizes that cover the apartment next door. The front of a snow plow parked in his neighbor's backyard reads "Bin Laden must pay" next to a drawing of the World Trade Center towers under attack.
Ong is considered a national hero for her bravery on the morning on Sept. 11, when she called the airline reservations center and relayed critical information about the five hijackers who took over the plane and terrorized the passengers and crew. But to Landrum, Ong was more than just a hero.
"She was hardworking and she was an angel to everyone," he said. "She was completely a lady."
An avid collector of Beanie Babies toys and Barbie dolls and a good friend who was always willing to listen, Ong was unique, Landrum said.
"Betty broke the mold. She was like no one I had ever met before," he said.
On the night of Sept. 10, Landrum came home late from work. Ong, who had just returned from a flight earlier that day, had to be up early the next day to board Flight 11 and was already asleep. When she said goodbye early the next morning, she told Landrum she'd see him on Wednesday.
When he came downstairs that morning and turned on the television, he saw the images of the World Trade Center on fire. Ong's sister called to ask what flight her sister was working.
"You don't usually keep track of those things," he said. "But I just knew."
Last month, Landrum heard the tape of his fiancee's call to the airline just before the plane crashed.
"It was great. She was totally professional and polite and she was thinking clearly," he said, adding that he was not surprised. "When the flight attendants knew that Betty was on a flight, they always knew things would run smoothly," he said.
Landrum, a Navy veteran, owns and teaches at Karate for Kids in North Andover. As a fourth-degree black belt, he said it was frustrating to hear the tape knowing that he was on the ground and couldn't do anything to stop the terrorists.
Since Sept. 11, Landrum has flown to his home state of California to visit Ong's parents, brother and two sisters.
"It was hard to see the flight attendants doing their job. I thought about Betty," he said.
He has also been to New York City twice. Once, for a memorial service and a tour of Ground Zero, and again on New Year's Eve with friends.
"In honor of the people that were victims we cannot let this hold us down. You've gotta keep your spirits up," he said. "I'm not 100 percent yet, but I'm able to give more now."
Last week, Landrum attended a ceremony where Ong and other flight attendants were honored by Gov. Swift. The families of the crew members were given a bronze-colored medallion, which was created in memory of flight attendant Madeline Amy Sweeney, 35, an Acton mother of two and 14-year veteran flight attendant who was also on board Flight 11.
Landrum brought the medal to his karate school to teach his students a lesson in bravery and courage.
"Try to live an honorable life all the time," he said he told them. "The good decisions are always the toughest ... Betty always did that."