Ed Driscoll

BETTY ANN ONG, AMERICAN HERO

I ran out to pick up the mail at my office a little while ago, and one the way back, while flipping stations on the car radio, came across the Sean Hannity Show. Hannity played the audio tape of Betty Ann Ong, the stewardess on American Airlines Flight #11, who called in to request help–any help–after terrorists maced the passengers in first class, stabbed the crew in the galley, and barricaded themselves in the cockpit of the plane, which they eventually crashed into the World Trade Center.

According to this Fox News article:

The Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States heard portions of her 23-minute conversation with the American Airlines operations center on the second of its two-day hearing Tuesday.

Nydia Gonzalez, who was on duty at the operations center that morning, told the panel how she received Ong’s call at about 8:20 a.m.

“Several media accounts of what occurred on Flight 11 claimed that Betty was ‘hysterical with fear,’ ‘shrieking’ and ‘gasping for air,’ she said. “Those accounts were wrong.”

“In a very calm, professional and poised demeanor, Betty Ong relayed to us detailed information of the events unfolding on Flight 11,” Gonzalez added. “I honestly believe after my conversation with Betty that the 81 passengers and new crew members on Flight 11 had no idea of the fate they were to encounter that day.”

In the tape played before the commission, Ong tells the operations center her flight and seat number and describes the scene on board.

“We can’t even get into the cockpit. We don’t know who’s there,” Ong says, before the call ends in a dial tone.

If I find, or someone emails me a link to a Real Audio or Windows Media file of Ong’s conversation, I’d very much like to link to it. Ong really had ice water in her veins to be that cool under enormous–and ultimately fatal–pressure. While history may record that she was unable to get help in time, she created a vital document of the last seconds of Flight #11.

Listening to that tape left me feeling like I punched in the gut. But Jonah’s right: This stuff needs to be played over and over again. We shouldn’t forget the horror–and the evil men that caused it.

UPDATE: Orrin Judd writes:

It’s the damndest thing, we’re far enough removed from the events of that day that we can refer to 9-11 without tapping every time into the memories that are stored away somewhere in our viscera. But then you hear something or see something or read something–as happened to Brother Driscoll–and it does indeed hit you like a physical assault. What may be most interesting about the whole phenomena is that it seems to demonstrate that we may be almost too decent a people. Rare, maybe even unique, is the culture that would consciously choose to put away the most inflammatory images, sounds, and stories of that day, even as it pursues the perpetrators and wars with their comrades in terror.

Imagine the effect, even the cheap effect, to which such remembrance could be put. Recent criticism of the President–particularly in the wake of the Paul O’Neill book–has dwelt on the notion that 9-11 merely provided a convenient excuse for him to act out some kind of psychodrama whereby he got to settle his father’s score with Saddam and introduce fascist rule under cover of the Patriot Act. How about an address to the nation where he just plays the tape of the two planes crashing into the WTC and then says: “History may one day show that Saddam Hussein was less of a threat than we thought he was, but what we did we did because this must never happen again.” Whether something like that would work or might instead backfire doesn’t even matter, because the fact is it is somehow not in the American grain to use the tragedy in that way. It’s almost as if we share some kind of collective intuition about just how terrible–though not necessarily unjustified–are the things we might do if we were to exploit the darker demons of our nature.

But does that make sense? Can an entire people know (and fear) themselves at such a level? Or is there some other explanation for the way in which the central event in our recent history has been carefully stored away, only to be encountered in almost accidental fashion?

Given that the Republican National Convention will be in New York in late August, I’d like to think this is one central event that will be relived. But who knows?

ANOTHER UPDATE: Reader Kevin Hisel sent me a link to audio of Betty Ong’s conversation.

ONE MORE UPDATE: Andrew Sullivan looks at a recent article by Joshua Micah Marshall in The New Yorker and writes:

For the Clintonites, 9/11 didn’t really happen. Everything the Bush administration has tried to do in foreign policy is perverse, neocon imperialism – despite the fact that Bush ran as less interventionist than Al Gore in 2000. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to them that this administration’s hard line against terror-sponsoring regimes and those developing WMDs was not some ideological plot – but a reaction to events.

And it’s probably easier to move images of an event that cause so much cognitive dissonance in your worldview that it “didn’t really happen” (to use Sullivan phrase) to the videotape archive, rather than beaming out to an audience who care about them far more than you do.

QUICK UPDATE (1/30/04): Bryan S. has some thoughts, and a link to a tape of her phone call.