SAN FRANCISCO - On this 17th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a San Francisco flight attendant is being remembered as being the first person to alert authorities.
The late Betty Ann Ong is still very much a presence in Chinatown, the neighborhood she called home growing up.
On Tuesday, Norman Fong, a friend who was instrumental in getting a recreation center on Mason Street at Washington renamed the Betty Ong Recreation Center, visited the place and told KTVU he grew up playing inside the center.
He said it is only fitting that this is now a place to remember her as a hero.
Fong says he listens to the audiotape of Ong's last phone call on Sept. 11, 2001, alerting authorities to the hijacking released by the Federal Aviation Administration.
This is an excerpt:
"My name is Betty Ong. I'm number 3 on Flight 11. The cockpit is not answering their phone.
there's somebody stabbed in business class."
Ong was the voice of calm.
The flight attendant made the first telephone call to alert authorities that there was a hijacking. It was also the first indication America was under attack.
"We can't breathe in business class. Somebody's got mace or something," said Ong during the call.
"I hear her tape every year. I listen to her courage," says Fong, who says he's known Ong since they were children.
He says on this day, there is sadness and pride.
"Maybe sometimes, we don't appreciate that an average Chinatown kid could be a national hero," said Fong.
Knowledge that his friend possessed a selfless strength in the face of terrifying circumstances offers comfort.
"Our first class flight attendant and our purser has been stabbed and we can't get into the cockpit. The door won't open," said Ong in the audio recording.
She was on the first plane that crashed into the World Trade Center.
Her 23-minute call eventually led to the grounding of all flights nationwide and Ong was credited with relaying vital information about the identities of the terrorists.
"She's watching the hijackers and identifying them all. She was very cool and we're all so proud of her," said Fong.
Inside the recreation center where Ong used to play basketball, there is a flurry of activity.
On display is a photo of Ong's family with President Barack Obama who visited the center.
Her relatives started a foundation that helps fund programs at the center.
"It's all very poignant to come here today to see how bustling it is," said Phil Ginsburg, general manager of SF Recreation & Parks Department, "this place connects the past. It connects Betty Ann's story to kids growing up today."
Fong says his friend is an example of how an average citizen can do something extraordinary to help others.
"At the right moment, if they step up, not hide behind the seat. She was courageous," said Fong.
Supporters say this rec center is a place to remember Betty Ong's strength, that her spirit will live on in the children and adults she's inspired.
Fong told KTVU that every year, Ong's family marks this day in private.