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Remembering 9-11 (Part 5 - Heroes 33)
Because the airline industry was such a part of my life for 39 years, and because I witnessed many changes through this time, and because I felt the pain of my flying partners through this aviation disaster, it is important for me to honor my fallen comrades, my heroes of 9-11.
A month after September 11th, I was on our crew bus going out on a trip when a flight attendant on a different crew started talking to me about that day. As our conversation continued, she said, “You know, the real hero of 9-11 was that American Air Lines flight attendant who talked for over 20 minutes with American officials and gave them detailed information on what was happening on AA Flight 11.” As she continued, she told me, “They (Middle Eastern men as described below) were always on my flights this summer. I flew the LAX-BOS three months in a row, and I remember them because they all carried little metal suitcases and always ordered special meals. Many times, the meals were not boarded, and I would have to go and apologize for the oversight. Instead of being angry, they would say, ‘It’s OK.’’ This acceptance was probably due to their not wanting to draw attention to themselves.
Looking back, I think these men were scouting the routes, the routines of the flight crews, and the load factors. I suspect that since 9-11 Homeland Security has retrieved the names of the passengers flying that summer on U.S. carriers, and I bet it is NOW classified information regarding who they were and how many there were scouting these flights.
In February of 2004, the name Betty Ong appeared in a Los Angeles Times article which repeated some of the information that the flight attendant had conveyed to me on the bus two years earlier. As I listened to her tapes, which are now available on the internet, I am amazed how patient she was with regard to the questions asked of her OVER and OVER again. The first American official was so in disbelief he was actually rude to her and argued with what she was saying. He also asked her name and seat number at least 10 times. He just could not seem to get it in his head that she was flight attendant Betty Ong, the #3 flight attendant seated at the jumpseat 3R. It was not until the last 4 and ½ minutes in a direct dialogue with Nydia Gonzalez, an American reservationist in Raleigh, NC, that Betty’s information got relayed to an emergency center and understood. It was Nydia who said at the end, “Betty, talk to me.” I think we might have lost her.” (1:1) I can only imagine the feeling Nydia had when Betty’s voice abruptly ended, replaced with total silence. I’m sure it took her breath away as her heart rate accelerated and an empty, sick feeling took over.
As Betty Ong was talking from her jumpseat, Amy Sweeney, another AA flight attendant on the same flight, was talking from a passenger seat in the next-to-last row of Coach. She used an on-board Airphone to call the American Inflight Office in Boston, where she was based. Her first call was disconnected after giving her name, her flight number, and that they had been hijacked. She called back and said, “LISTEN TO ME, and listen very carefully.” The phone call was taken over on the receiving end by Michael Woodward, a flight service manager who had known Amy for over 10 years. She calmly gave Michael the seat locations of 3 of the hijackers; 9D, 9G, and 10B. She told Michael they were all of Middle Eastern descent and described each of them. With this information, he put the seat numbers into their system computer and 2o minutes before Flight 11 hit the north Tower, the airline had the names, addresses and credit card information on them: 9G – Abdulaziz, Al-Omari; 9D –Mohamed Atta (the ring leader who ended up piloting the plane into the building); and 10B - Satam Al-Sugami.
The most interesting information Amy told Michael was related to her face-to-face conversation with the hijackers, and how they showed her a “bomb,” which she described in detail including how it had yellow and red wires. All of this information was relayed to American’s headquarters in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas.
It is important to note that when I wrote my book, Turbulent Skies, in 2004, I was not aware of Amy Sweeney working as the eyes and ears for Betty Ong as she relayed the information to Nydia Gonzalez. It was Amy who actually entered into Business Class and maybe even further. She reported back to Betty that their purser (the #1 flight attendant) Karen Martin and their #5 (forward galley) flight attendant Barbara Arestequi had been stabbed. She also told Betty that the passenger in 9C, Daniel Lewin had his throat slit. Wikipedia reports that he had tried to stop the hijackers but was attacked from behind by the hijacker in 10B.
Both Amy Sweeney and Betty Ong told their contacts that they did not think their pilots were flying the plane. The cockpit door was closed, and when they called them, there was no answer from the pilots. Amy Sweeney told Michael that the plane had drastically changed direction and was flying erratically and in a rapid descent. Ms. Sweeney was asked by Michael, “What do you see?” She responded, “I see water; I see buildings; we are flying way too low.” Then she took a deep breath and gasped, “Oh my God!” as her last words. (1:2)
Before they hit the North Tower, American Capt. John Ogonowski had been forced to fly part of the way there, and while doing so, he was holding down the “push-to-talk” button on his microphone which allowed all the other crews in the area as well as Air Traffic Control to hear the conversation going on in the cockpit. Several FAA controllers heard hijacker Atta say, “We have more planes.” Those words were recorded by the control center in Nashua, NH, but within a very short period of time after the Towers fell, Federal law enforcement arrived and took the tapes. This information was provided by a reporter named Mark Clayton.
Along with the information that was passed on by the crew members on Flight 11, there was also dialogue from flight attendant Robert Fangman on United’s Flight 175 (which hit the south Tower). He used a direct line to call the United Maintenance Center in San Francisco. He talked with Mark Policastro telling him to call United Headquarters and tell them that the flight had been hijacked and the passengers in seats 2A and 2B breached the cockpit. He reported that both pilots were dead and that the forward flight attendant had been stabbed. Unfortunately, his call lasted only 75 seconds before it was disconnected. Mark then tried to get through to the cockpit using the ACARS message system, but there was no answer.
On American Flight 77 (which later hit the Pentagon), flight attendant Renee May called her mother and talked for close to 2 minutes telling her about the hijacking and asking her to please call American Airlines because she could not get through to the company.
On United Flight 93, flight attendant Sandra Bradshaw also called on the direct line to San Francisco Maintenance and told them of their hijacking. Another flight attendant, Cee Cee Lyles, called her husband. Both callers told of being taken over by hijackers.
It is quite clear to me that the crew members involved did not give up in the face of death. They had all been told that there were bombs on board, which no doubt constrained the actions that they and the passenger could have taken against the hijackers, but they did what they could! Remember crew members during that time period were taught in their training to comply with hijacker requests and not antagonize them.
There are many other human interest stories associated with the heroes of these flights. For example, I learned that Betty Ong was not scheduled for that flight. She had traded into Flight 11 so that she and her sister could take a trip to Hawaii the next week.
Captain John Ogonowski was married to an American airlines flight attendant named Peg. She and John had planned to fly to Europe together once their children were raised.
My friend Lorraine Bay had picked up Fight 93 on her days off so she could increase her flight time for the month.
Captain Jason Dahl on Flight 93 had traded into that trip so that he and his wife (a United flight attendant) could fly to London on September 14th for their anniversary.
The co-pilot of Flight 93, Leroy Homer, Jr., was an Air Force Academy graduate who had served in the first Gulf war. His widow, Melody Homer, shares my view that that crew members never received their due and were simply lumped in with all other fatalities in the final counts.
I am saddened that I cannot give all 33 heroes the recognition they deserve or share more of their stories with the readers. But I can acknowledge that they were all there that day in that tragic environment. They were all very special people who had given their whole lives to aviation, and who started their day thinking it was going to be just another routine flight on a lovely late summer morning.
I can, however, wish beautiful thoughts their way when I think about them. I can wish that their birth back into spirit was not painful and that they were there for each other. I can wish that God smiled at them, and gathered them up in his/her arms and carried them to a space so beautiful and incredible that the colors and sounds alone settled them into a blissful state of being.
I can and do wish these things, and as I do, I feel more content in my own being knowing that they made it to their true home safely and all have peace and are one with the universe.
1. Sheehy, Gail, “Stewardess ID’d Hijackers Early, Transcripts Show”, The New York Observer, February 16, 2004.