ANDOVER — As she drove into town Thursday afternoon with her family, Cathie Ong-Herrera imagined her younger sister strolling downtown and spending time with children in her neighborhood.
It's been 10 years since her sister Betty Ong, a 14-year veteran flight attendant for American Airlines, was killed when Flight 11 slammed into the north tower of the World Trade Center. Ong, 45, is considered a national hero for making a phone call to relay critical information about the five hijackers who took over the plane.
Andover may be far from San Francisco's Chinatown where Betty grew up, but her brother and two sisters wanted to connect with the place where Betty last lived before her death.
"It is almost like I can see Betty walking around and going into the restaurants and shops," Ong-Herrera said. "(Andover) has special meaning to me because this was the last place Betty lived."
After spending the weekend in New York City for the dedication of the national 9/11 memorial on Sunday, the Ong family, who live in the San Francisco area, traveled to Massachusetts to spend time in Boston and Andover.
Joining Ong-Herrera was her husband, Ed Herrera, sister Gloria Ong, brother Harry Ong Jr. and his wife, Dorothy.
In Andover, one of their first stops was the town offices to see the newly dedicated plaque in the main entrance. The plaque bears the names of four men and women with ties to Andover who were killed in the terrorist attacks. Betty Ong's name is among them.
Town Manager Reginald "Buzz" Stapczynski, selectmen Chairman Brian Major and Veterans Services Director Michael Burke greeted the family. Andover resident Barbara Hillmann, a flight attendant for Delta Airlines who knew Betty Ong, was also there.
"She was extremely well-loved and is missed," Hillmann said to the family. "She did a wonderful thing for our industry (by making the phone call to report the hijackers). She was able to stay so composed. She was so calm."
Ong-Herrera said she was touched by the plaque and the fact it is so prominently displayed in the entrance to the town offices. The family had planned the trip before they knew about the plaque being installed.
"Meeting everyone and seeing the plaque made our visit to Andover more special," Ong-Herrera said.
For Harry Ong Jr., being in Andover is a way to continue reaching out to his sister, even 10 years after her death.
"For me, it is sort of breathing the air Betty did," he said.
The family also reconnected with Robert Landrum while in town. He was Betty Ong's fiancé©e before she died.
He said it is always tough to lose someone, but the magnitude of 9/11 adds to the pain, especially with all that has followed — the wars, the killing of Osama bin Laden and all the political arguments. But he said it is comforting to know the nation is behind the families who lost loved ones.
"It is always there," Landrum said of 9/11. "It is not something you can walk away from."
Landrum has been teaching taekwondo in the Andover/North Andover area since 1993. He is currently the chief instructor of ATA Martial Arts on Haverhill Street. He lives in Haverhill with his wife of four years. In 2006, he became a world champion in sparring and became a sixth-degree black belt this year.
'A true American hero'
Betty Ong took a huge risk calling in the hijacking because the terrorists could have caught her, authorities said. In a recording of the phone call, Ong spoke in a calm voice about stabbings, a noxious gas and hijackers on board minutes before terrorists crashed the plane into the north tower of the World Trade Center.
"The cockpit's not answering, somebody's stabbed in business class. I think there's mace that we can't breathe. I don't know. I think we are getting hijacked," she said in an even tone in the recording. "We've just left Boston. We are up in the air. We were supposed to go to L.A. and the cockpit is not answering the phone."
Her call provided a clear indication that America was under attack. It eventually led to the shutdown of all flights nationwide, her family said. Her call, which reported where the hijackers were sitting before they took over the plane, helped investigators quickly determine their identities.
About four minutes of the 23-minute recording was released in 2004 during a 9/11 commission hearing. Commission Chairman Thomas Kean called Betty Ong "a true American hero."
Five months after the attacks, Betty and two of her fellow crew members — flight attendant Madeline Amy Sweeney, 35, an Acton mother of two, and Capt. John Ogonowski, 52, a Dracut father of three — were honored by then-Gov. Jane Swift for their bravery.
One of the toughest things for the Ong the family to endure is that they were never able to say goodbye to Betty. But they find comfort in the fact that she made an impact with her phone call.
"That was just the Betty we knew," Ong-Herrera said. "She had a job to do. We are very proud of her."
What stands out the most for Harry Ong Jr. was that Betty asked the ground crew to "pray for us," and not just for herself.
Harry Ong Jr. was overwhelmed by the sight of Betty Ong's name on the memorial in New York City on Sunday. Not paying attention to TV cameras, he bent down and kissed her name.
"I was just focusing on my sister's name," he said. "I couldn't bear to see my sister's name etched there. None of the names should be there. I thought she should be home with us. That's when I broke down."
Ong-Herrera said she stayed at the monument for at least two hours after Sunday's unveiling.
"Seeing all the names and hearing the water, it was very soothing and calming," she said of the monument, which includes two waterfalls. "I didn't expect to feel that way."
Harry Ong Jr. said the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 is just a number. But the family felt that it was important to be there, he said.
"For the families, it is not only every year, but every day," he said.
Ong-Herrera said Betty is always with her and the family. They keep her legacy alive in many ways, including the Betty Ann Ong Foundation, which educates children to the positive benefits of lifelong physical activity and healthy eating habits.
"It is a step-by-step closure," Harry Ong Jr. said. "Closure to me is total peace, and that will never be. Not in my lifetime anyway."
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