A crucial element in this news report is that Vanessa Minter reportedly talked with Betty Ong on Flight AA11 for 40 minutes, starting "minutes after 8 am", that is only minutes after the plane took off, according to the article at 7:59 am. This account is contradicted by official accounts, such as the Final Report of the Commission of Inquiry.
One should note that Jennifer Julin, the journalist, does not indicate whether she personally interviewed or met Vanessa Minter, nor where the interview took place. Yet such information is regularly given when an interview is conducted by the journalist.
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One of The Last Calls
Vanessa Minter knew before we knew that somehow our world would change. Vanessa wanted to be first on the phones September 11, 2001. It was her one-year anniversary at American’s Cary Reservation Center.
Vanessa never knew what the next call would bring. It could be a couple making plans for their honeymoon – a loved one trying to get home for a funeral, or a crew member just wanting to check his schedule. Vanessa loved those brief connections. But September 11th, for nearly 40 minutes, she was a lifeline.
"The first words I heard from the young lady on the phone were I think we’re being hijacked. I asked her, can you repeat yourself and she does. I realize this isn’t funny."
It’s minutes after 8 am. The caller is Betty Ong – a flight attendant with 14 years experience. "She’s calm, she tells us what flight she’s on."
Betty’s calling from American Airlines Flight 11. The 767 took off from Logan Airport at 7:59. It was a light load – 81 passengers, a captain, first officer and nine flight attendants.
They were bound for LA, but Betty Ong doesn’t think they’ll land there. "She begins to give us information, she tells us their number one has been stabbed. She’s down. They’re in the cockpit. They have not gotten any word from the cockpit."
Betty calls from the coach section of the plane. Vanessa can hear other flight attendants going back and forth relaying information.
"She lets us know they’ve sprayed something in the cabin there. They can’t get up there." Betty says the hijackers were seated in first class, and she gives the seat numbers. "There are two of them seated side by side."
"They" were Abdulaziz Alomari and Mohammed Atta – the ringleader of September 11th’s activities. "She does make a point to let us know the passengers in coach have no idea what’s going on." Vanessa goes on to explain the awkward silences during that time. "Betty said, ‘Are you still there?’ I tell her I’m here with you. She says ‘o-k I’m here too and waits."
Betty Ong, like other American employees, are trained to cooperate with hijackers. Get safely on the ground, then negotiate.
"Betty seems to think they’re descending. In her voice it made it made it sound like they were going to descend and land and pretty soon we’re gonna get a message. They’re going to start making demands. They don’t do that. They level off."
Betty fears the hijackers are taking a different course. "The tone of her voice changes a little bit. She never loses her cool, but she asks us to pray for them. Not I, not me, not us."
At 8:46, Vanessa unplugs her headset. The folks in Dallas want a supervisor to ask the questions, but there are no more answers – the line is dead. "They wanted me to write a statement so it would be fresh on my mind."
As she walked to American’s operations’ center, Vanessa still didn’t know what happened to Betty’s plane, and she couldn’t understand why her co-workers were huddled around a TV.
Vanessa couldn’t remember Betty’s flight number. "It wasn’t important that I remember it was Flight 11. The thing I remembered, is I spoke with Betty Ong and who she was."
Betty Ong was just doing her job September 11th. So was Vanessa Minter. "I didn’t do anything. I was just on the phone with someone who needed someone to listen to what she had to say."
Vanessa tried to work through her grief and guilt by talking to her husband and close friends. She says the healing began when Betty Ong’s family contacted her.
Vanessa stayed on the phone with Betty Ong in the last minutes leading up to the attacks on the World Trade Center towers. About 15 minutes into the call, the plane changes direction. Betty Ong suspects the hijackers are playing by new rules.
At 8:47, America sees what Vanessa and Betty feared, but Vanessa was still on the clock. "They immediately directed me to the operation’s office. They wanted me to write a statement so it would be fresh on my mind. After I completed my statement, I sat down in that room and wrote a letter to her family. I felt I owed them that. I told them exactly what happened and what a fantastic individual Betty was and the hero she was."
American Airlines and the FBI gave Vanessa another assignment. "They didn’t want me to talk about it." So she did what came naturally. "I went back on the phone, plugged back in, and waited for the first call to come and it did."
This time Vanessa couldn’t help. Air traffic was at a standstill. The next few days, she filed papers, answered questions from investigators and waited for the planes to get back in the air. "I could do things, I could get people where they were going."
Not many people were going anywhere. Corporations were feeling the pinch. American Airlines was one of the hardest hit. September 27th, American Airlines announced massive layoffs. "I no longer had a position. It just didn’t make good corporate sense. As long as I worked there, unwritten, silent or not, when you let me go, I no longer had a loyalty to you."
Vanessa still had a connection with Betty Ong and some of her last words. "I heard her voice in my sleep. I heard ‘pray for us’. It would wake me up at night. I felt guilty I didn’t know her. I didn’t have anything to reach to make her feel better, personal experiences."
Remember, the letter Vanessa wrote September 11th? An American employee gave it to Betty Ong’s brother in San Francisco. "Harry contacted me. He was very nervous when he called."
Vanessa listened and for the first time she talked about the call. "I was one of the last people to speak to Betty. They deserve to know. They need to know."
Vanessa was finally getting to know Betty Ong. "They helped me get over it. They helped me understand I did all I could do." This was the beginning of a phone friendship with a woman Vanessa would never meet and her surviving family. "She had a spark for life that was unquenchable."
The cross-country calls became a welcome ritual. "Harry called me one night and said Betty’s coming home." Not long after, they met in person in New York – where Betty died. "The event will be in the history books for a long time to come. My part in it was very minor."
Not to Betty Ong’s family. They call Betty the first soldier in this war. To the end, she was a professional looking out for her passengers. The Ong’s listened to a portion of the September 11th call. Only the first four minutes were recorded. They couldn’t believe the calm in Betty’s voice, the professionalism in Vanessa’s, and the connections between two strangers. "It’s a big club I did not ask to be a member of, but I am not sorry that I am."
American Airlines wouldn’t comment specifically on Vanessa’s layoff. They do tell me it was based on her lack of seniority in the company. American did offer a job when business picked up. She turned them down.
Vanessa has no plans to watch coverage of the one-year anniversary of the attacks. She plans to go to her new job, but she’ll be thinking about Betty Ong.
Last Updated: Sep 11, 2002