Of all the shocking turns of events during and after 9/11, perhaps the most unexpected moments were when normal people, faced with their own demise, chose to be heroes. You don’t hear about those people as much. After all, a hero isn’t someone who waits for glory, but someone who springs into action for the sake of helping others. Countless people showed their heroic true colors that day, Betty Ong among them.

Like most people that day, Betty’s morning started out like any other. A flight attendant for American Airlines, she packed her bags, straightened her uniform, and boarded American Airlines Flight 11, a flight she’d specifically chosen to be assigned to. 

This flight from Boston to Los Angeles was the only thing standing between her and the Hawaiian vacation she’d planned to go on with her sister. There was a beach waiting for her in Hawaii, but her duty as a flight attendant came first.

Flight attendants aren’t only trained to give out peanuts. They’re trained for disaster, and most importantly, how to react if and when disaster strikes. From engine troubles to hijackings, flight attendants must be able to spring from helper to hero in a matter of seconds. 

But on Flight 11 that day, imminent disaster was far from Betty’s mind. After all, the skies were clear, the passengers were settled in, and she was heading back home to California. A San Francisco native, Betty had a somewhat unconventional childhood.

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Betty was born and raised in Chinatown alongside three siblings. She loved to skateboard and hang out with friends on Romolo Place in North Beach. But as much as she loved California, Betty couldn’t help but feel drawn somewhere else entirely.

Travel had always appealed to Betty’s love of adventure, so becoming a flight attendant just made sense. She was good at it, too: After just a few years on the job, she worked her way to purser, also known as the head flight attendant.

“She made me feel very much at ease and just kind of helped me along when I needed any guidance or suggestions,” one of Betty’s co-workers recalled. “It was a real joy to work with Betty.” And on September 11th, Betty’s skill was put to the ultimate test.

At 7:59 AM, Flight 11 departed Logan Airport in Boston. Fifteen minutes later, the phone on the American Airlines operations desk started to ring. What the American Airlines supervisor heard when he picked up the phone changed his life forever.

“The cockpit’s not answering.” It was Betty, alerting American Airlines — and the rest of the world — that something terrible was happening on Flight 11. From the rear of the plane, Betty told the supervisor all about the disaster that was only just starting to unfold. 

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“The cockpit’s not answering. Somebody’s stabbed in business class and — I think there’s mace — that we can’t breathe. I don’t know,” she said over the phone. Then, Betty confirmed everyone’s worst nightmare. “I think we’re getting hijacked.”

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Fifteen minutes after the plane’s departure, Flight 11 was hijacked by five members of al-Qaeda. They forcibly entered the cockpit, overpowered the captain and first officer, and according to Betty, stabbed multiple crew members.

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“Our Number 1 got stabbed. Our purser is stabbed,” Betty told the growing number of supervisors on the phone. She was referring to flight attendants Barbara Arestegui and Karen Martin; no one knows if they died then or during the plane crash.

Betty talked to American Airlines’ Operations, and it wasn’t long before specialists from American Airlines’ Emergency Line were added to the call. As chaos unfurled in the air, operators on the ground tried to figure out what exactly was going on.

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“My name is Betty Ong, I’m Number 3 on Flight 11,” she told them. As Betty talked to the specialists, her fellow flight attendant, Madeline Sweeney, put in her own calls to American Airlines. The information both women provided was devastating. 

One passenger later identified as 31-year-old Daniel Lewin was stabbed by one of the terrorists after he tried to stop the hijacking. His death is believed to have been the first of the 9/11 attacks. Somehow, despite the chaos, Betty managed to keep talking to the specialists.

“Somebody’s calling medical and we can’t get a doc” — at this point, the recording of Betty’s phone call stopped, but she remained on the phone with Operations Specialist Nydia Gonzalez, and confirmed that there was no doctor aboard Flight 11.

Betty’s professionalism and level-headedness was on stark display during her phone call with American Airlines. At this point, she provided crucial information about the hijackers, including where they were sitting and what they looked like.

This information was vital to investigators, who later used it to identify the hijackers’ identities. Although the recording of Betty’s call had ended, she was still on the phone with Nydia Gonzalez, who expertly relayed Betty’s information to the other specialists.

Via FBI

At this point, one of the specialists communicated shocking news. “We contacted Air Traffic Control, they are going to handle this as a confirmed hijacking, so they’re moving all the traffic out of this aircraft’s way.” This paved the way for another life-saving decision.

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“[Betty] provided important information, which ultimately led to closing of our nation’s airspace for the first time in its history,” Nydia Gonzalez later said. “Betty’s selfless acts of courage and determination may have saved the lives of many others.”

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Shortly after Betty told Nydia the seat numbers of the hijackers, their communication was cut off for good. It was 8:46 AM — the exact time Flight 11 was intentionally crashed into the World Trade Center’s North Tower. It wasn’t, however, the last time Betty’s voice was heard.

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All 92 people on Flight 11 were killed that day, but the recording of Betty’s phone call has become a chilling testament to her and the crew’s bravery. Not only is her name immortalized on the North Pool of the 9/11 Memorial, but it’s remembered all over the country…

Ten days later, about 200 members of the Chinese American community in San Francisco gathered on September 21st, 2001, to pay tribute to Betty and everyone who lost their lives in the terrorist attacks. September 21st became “Betty Ong Day” in her honor. 

The San Francisco Examiner

Betty and Madeline Sweeney were the first recipients of the Madeline Amy Sweeney Award for Civilian Bravery, and she’s also recognized in a mural called “Gold Mountain,” which is on Romolo Place, the same street she played on as a kid.

Betty’s family graciously donated some of her belongings to the 9/11 Memorial Museum, including one of her uniforms, several lapel pins, and photographs of her doing what she loved most: seeing the world. As far as heroes go, Betty is in good company.

The country was reeling from the loss of nearly 3,000 innocent lives in 2001, and as every news station looped videos of the fateful attacks, the last place anyone wanted to be was Ground Zero.

Thomas E. Franklin

Yet New Yorkers are a different breed of resilient, which is why even as the rubble still smoldered, hundreds of locals ventured to the ruins of the World Trade Center to pay their respects and support the first responders. Among the crowds was a woman named Jennifer.

She was another New York resident just trying to make sense of it all. The twisted metal of the Twin Towers was a saddening sight, to say the least, but as she walked along the debris-littered streets of the Financial District, something else caught her eye.

Scattered among the rubble that dotted the sidewalks was what appeared to be a photograph, its surface crinkled and white with ash. Jennifer stooped to grab the photo and wiped it clean, revealing the image — the sight of it made her heart sink.

Matthew Castoral

It was a wedding photo, the bride and groom smiling alongside what appeared to be three close friends. Jennifer could only wonder which of them had been in the towers on that tragic September morning. The thought made her sick.

But then, something else came over her: hope. While the many lives lost on 9/11 had dominated the headlines, there were also plenty of survivors, too. The odds were slim, but there was a chance that the owner of this photo was still alive.

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Tracking them down was the obvious next step, though, unfortunately, it wasn’t one Jennifer could take herself. In just a few months, she was slated to leave New York for good — if the owner was still in Manhattan, she’d likely never be able to find them.

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That’s where Elizabeth Stringer Keefe came in. A college professor from Cambridge, Massachusetts, Elizabeth arrived in New York City that October to pay her good friend Jennifer a visit. In the process, she received the request of a lifetime.

Stonehill College

“She gave it to me with the request that I do something meaningful with it,” Elizabeth recalled of the fateful day Jennifer handed her the photo. “There’s so much beauty and happiness in the photo, and whatever relationship it had to 9/11, I wanted to care for it until I could return it to its owner.”

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But where would she begin? After all, there were over 8 million people living in New York City at the time, and if the photo’s owner had been an out-of-city commuter, that number increased exponentially.

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Social media was also in its infancy in 2001, meaning that getting the photo in front of a large number of people would mean literally doing so. But Elizabeth wasn’t about to let doubt shake her from her mission — in her heart, she knew the photo’s owner was out there.

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She began by sharing the photo with friends and people she knew around Manhattan, hoping that at least one face in the image would spark some kind of recognition. Yet time and time again, the answer was always the same: no one had ever seen these people before.

Boston College

Elizabeth, however, wouldn’t be deterred, and for the next several years she continued carrying out this plan of action despite limited success. All the while, the original copy of the photo remained tucked away in her favorite Ernest Hemingway novel.

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When social media sites like Facebook and Twitter took off toward the end of the decade, Elizabeth began sharing the photo on her profile every September 11th. Impressions were limited in the first few years — then, in 2014, everything changed.

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That year, the photo went viral, racking up 35,000 retweets and 12,000 favorites almost overnight. Elizabeth was stunned, but before she could even process her luck, she got an unexpected message on LinkedIn the very next day.

It was from Fred Mahe, a Colorado resident and financial advisor. To Elizabeth’s amazement, he revealed that he was the tall, smiling man in the back of the image — the photo belonged to him!

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He explained that the photo was taken at a friend’s wedding a few months prior to 9/11 and had been tacked in his office on the 77th floor of Tower 2. On the morning of the attacks, Fred was still on the subway when the first plane hit.

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With the photo’s owner finally found, there was just one last thing Elizabeth needed to do to complete her mission. She booked a flight to Manhattan, eager to meet Fred and end this 13-year saga right where it first began.

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Both Elizabeth and Fred were emotional as they stood across from one another for the first time, and as she handed over the photo Elizabeth could feel that a little piece of the universe had finally been made right. Fred was thankful to have the lost photo returned, but what moved him the most was Elizabeth’s selflessness.

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“The story is Elizabeth, the story is persistence and trying to help someone she didn’t even know,” he shared. “On 9/11 I saw the worst of humanity, [but] on 9/12 I saw the best of humanity. Elizabeth is 100 percent 9/12.”

Elizabeth Stringer Keefe

The “best of humanity” can also describe the first responders that put their lives on the line that fateful day, especially Keith Young. A proud New York City firefighter, Keith lived to serve others, though following 9/11, no one could’ve anticipated the impact his legacy would have on the world.

As a New York City firefighter, Keith had been thrust into the aftermath of the September 11th attacks. He and his squad worked tirelessly to clean up all the destruction. It was enough to break a man, but this hero had a support system at home.

He was happily married to his high school sweetheart, Beth King. The two had fallen for each other almost immediately after meeting, and they even had the handwritten love letters to prove it. But Keith’s and Beth’s pride and joy were their children.

They had three healthy and happy kids: Kiera, Kaley, and Christian. The kids adored the passion their father brought to his job, but even more so the energy and enthusiasm he brought to his second passion: cooking.

Yep, while Keith loved his job as a firefighter, he brought the same excitement to cooking for his friends, family, and fellow firefighters at his station. He was very talented in the kitchen.

In fact, when word got out about his culinary skills, and he was featured on several talk shows alongside a few fellow firefighters who shared his love of food prep.

His popularity only rose after he starred on an episode of Rachel Ray’s daytime talk show, where he competed in a cook-off against other firefighters from each NYC borough. This spurred Keith to actually invent a unique item for the kitchen.

A specially designed bamboo cutting board, Keith’s invention, the Cup Board Pro, featured both a rubber base to prevent it from sliding and a slight incline with a detachable tray to collect food scraps.

As the firefighter’s cooing contraption started to pick up some momentum, he occasionally spoke at local schools about what spurred his creativity. However, Keith’s kitchen brainchild soon came to a screeching halt.

Just as Keith received the very first prototype of the cutting board, his wife Beth was diagnosed with breast cancer. The devoted husband didn’t think twice about putting everything having to with his invention on hold to be by her side.

Tragically, Beth ultimately lost the fight against cancer, and she passed away a little over year after she was diagnosed. Her death hit the family like a firetruck, but every member pulled together to help each other out emotionally.

Kaley, the oldest daughter, opted not to return for her sophomore year at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and instead took over her mother’s Pilates and dance studio. But, there was another important role she now needed to play.

Only nine at the time of her mom’s passing, Kiera needed a mother figure, and Kaley knew she was the woman for the job. Meanwhile, all three children showed immense support for their father, who was heartbroken at the loss of his best friend.

Soon, the family finally found a spark of hope amidst the grief: the Food Network asked Keith if he’d be a contestant on the show Chopped! Not only did Keith agree, but he actually went on to win first place two different times! However, another tragedy was about to strike the family.

Because Keith was tasked with helping to clean up Ground Zero after the terrorist attacks in 2001, he developed synovial sarcoma in 2015; it was a rare type of cancer from inhaling massive quantities of dust.

Two years later, Keith’s promising climb up the culinary later came to a screeching halt as he lost the brutal fight. So it was that Kaley, Kiera, and Christian lost their second parent to cancer.

All three children were absolutely destroyed. How could something like this happen to both their parents? However, instead of giving in to the loss, they realized this was their chance to honor their parents in a perfect way.

So the kids relaunched Cup Board Pro. In fact, their father’s invention even landed them on the ABC show Shark Tank! It was a dream of Keith’s to pitch his idea to the investors on the show, and now all three kids had the opportunity to do it.

The children were asking for $100,000 for 10 percent of the company. However, after listening to the kids’ touching story about their mother and father, the panel of sharks did something completely unprecedented.

For 20 percent of the company, all five of the sharks offered $20,000 — a grand total of $100,000! The sharks saw the strength Kaley, Kiera, and Christian had in their hearts, and they wanted to give them the chance to honor their father appropriately.

You never know what life has in store for you, but good people and generosity can do wonders for those grieving. Just ask army medic Luis Ocampo…

Army medic Luis Ocampo lived in Charlotte, North Carolina, with his girlfriend Kailey Finch and their son Lucian. Luis served in the North Carolina National Guard, and in September 2018, duty called him into action.

Kailey Finch / Facebook

Hurricane Florence, a Category 1 storm, smacked the coast with heavy winds and torrential rain, flooding cities and destroying homes. The Guard deployed Luis to the riverfront city of New Bern, which the storm hit particularly hard.

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While Luis and his local soldiers navigated the storm’s aftermath, helping anyone who needed water, food, or what have you, 20-year-old Kailey and Lucian headed for a place they would feel safer without Luis around.

The National Guard

Specifically, she took her soon to Luis’s parents’ house so she wouldn’t be alone for days. She left the family dog at home, where she checked in on him periodically. For a few days, the family lived like this — away from home and apart.

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On September 21, Luis returned home from his brief stint in New Bern. After helping people piece their lives back together, he expected at least a few hours for himself. But once at home, he did not receive a hero’s welcome.

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With Kailey still at his parents’ house, Luis arrived at home only to be greeted by a curious sight: the dog — who’d been home all by himself — was running around in the front yard.

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Even more curious was that the backdoor had been left wide open. Either the dog taught himself a new trick and opened the door himself, or some one who should not have opened that back door. Gulp.

Most telling of all, however, was that the window in his son’s bedroom was propped open: someone busted the lock with a nearby shovel and crawled into the home! They weren’t still inside were they?

Luis Ocampo / Facebook

Luis entered his house through the wide-open back door and looked around. There was, thankfully, no one still inside the home. But that was just about the only positive the soldier could take away from what he saw.

Luis Ocampo / Facebook

The intruder flung clothes everywhere. They stole a laptop Luis kept all of his school work on; they stole a video game system, a firearm, and even swiped food from the refrigerator! And they didn’t stop there.

Kailey Finch / Facebook

The thieves took a box of coins Luis’s grandmother collected from around the world — something immensely sentimental to the 24 year old. After surveying the damage, all he could do was stick his face in his hands.

Kailey Finch / Facebook

This was how Kailey found her soldier when she returned home. Wanting to do something to help, she turned to Facebook and wrote a status that she didn’t know would eventually change their lives.

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“This soldier, my soldier,” Kailey wrote, “lost everything of importance…We are trying to get the word out and see if anyone has any information about who may have taken it. Please share and see what we can find out!”

Luis Ocampo / Facebook

A friend of Kailey’s, Mary Elise Capron, saw the post and felt an overwhelming sense of grief for the couple she loved dearly. She’d worked closely with Luis over the years and knew him as “an amazing soldier and person.”

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Mary wanted to help, so she set up a GoFundMe. “I am honored to know [Luis],” she wrote, “and cannot believe something so terrible could happen to someone so dedicated to the service, his family, and school.”

Luis Ocampo / Facebook

Mary set a fundraising goal of $5,000. That, she figured, would be plenty to replace the laptop and firearm, and to repair the broke bedroom window. Eventually, donations flooded in…and they wouldn’t stop!

In 11 days, the GoFundMe raised thousands for the couple, who eventually asked Mary to shut down the fundraiser! They were making too much money, they argued, and didn’t “want to abuse people’s generosity.”

But the public actually asked Mary to re-open the fundraiser after she shut it down at the couple’s behest: they wanted to help out this woebegone soldier! This made Luis uncomfortable, so he and Mary worked out another plan.

Mary Elise Capron; Kailey Finch

Delighted with the public’s enthusiasm to help a soldier in need, Luis, Kailey, and Mary redirected new donations to Soldiers and Airmen Assistance Fund, which helps local Guardsmen facing hardships.

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The couple even gave some of the donation money — which totaled nearly $15,000! — to a soldier who’d been living in a hotel after a Hurricane Florence brought a tree down on his home. Luis and Kailey turned a disaster into a positive moment.

“A big part of wanting to give the donations comes from seeing how generous people have been,” Luis said. “And I wanted to pay that back to someone else who needed help.”

Kailey Finch / Facebook