Union Victims of 9/11 Honored at Hall Of Fame 2012 Induction

By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer

WASHINGTON (PAI)--For Cathie Ong-Herrera, the memory of her sister Betty still lives.

Millions of people will never forget where they were and what they were doing when two al-Qaeda-commandeered jetliners crashed into the World Trade Center, another hit the Pentagon and a fourth went down in a rural Pennsylvania field – after a fight between hijackers and passengers -- on Sept. 11, 2001, the day the terrorist group started its war against the U.S. Al-Qaeda’s attacks killed 2,977 Americans.

Betty Ong was one of the first: She was a unionized flight attendant on the American Airlines plane that hit the Twin Towers. For her sister Cathie, the memory is particularly strong, as later testimony and records show it was Betty Ong whose 23-minute call to ground-based U.S airspace authorities first told them what was going on.

Betty lost her life on 9/11, but she saved others, speakers said May 17 as they inducted the 636 unionists who died in the attacks into Labor’s International Hall of Fame, as a group. Speakers explained Betty’s cell phone call prompted the sudden grounding of all U.S. air traffic, preventing further terrorist attacks.

And it was Cathie Ong who talked about her sister as featured speaker at the ceremony, 10-1/2 years later – and she talked about Betty as a person and a unionist..

“Betty was the first to sound the alarm, and she identified the hijackers,” Cathie told a packed house at AFL-CIO headquarters during the moving ceremony. “Losing Betty shattered our well-being. It hurt my heart to see what it did to my parents and siblings. And at times I would wish it were me working on that plane.”

But Betty Ong was also a committed unionist as a member of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, the independent union that represents flight attendants at American. “She believed in the saying that ‘an injury to one is an injury to all,’” her sister said. As a result, Betty wasn’t reluctant to put herself on a picket line, either.

That solidarity is something that helped the labor movement pull through 9/11 and its aftermath, other speakers added.

The attacks were “a moment of great horror and great pride” for labor, said Fire Fighters President Harold Schaitberger, whose union lost 343 New York Fire Fighters and their priest when the Twin Towers crashed to the ground. The attacks were the horror.

But the Fire Fighters’ role in saving 25,000 other people there, and the following “thousands upon thousands” of unionists from all over the U.S., “who came first to rescue, then to recover” remains produced the solidarity and the pride, he added.

IAFF hosted the ceremony, and two New York Fire Fighter leaders told the audience that since the Twin Towers’ collapse 50 of their colleagues have died from diseases contracted while sifting the rubble of what came to be called The Pile.

Cathie Ong’s sharp memory of her sister wasn’t the only such reminiscence. But for a different flight schedule, Sara Nelson, now Association of Flight Attendants-CWA vice president, would not have been in D.C., either. She would have died on 9/11, too.

Nelson, based in Boston, was a regular crewmember on United Airlines Flight 175 – the Boston-New York plane that was the second to hit the Twin Towers that day. But for the fact that Nelson was overnighting in Chicago, on the way back from the West Coast, she would have been on Flight 175. Her friends were.

“Those crew members were the best of the best,” Nelson said. “I remember Amy King telling me ‘It’s OK, Sara, it’s all OK.’” King, Ong and 31 other flight crewmembers died when the four commandeered planes crashed. All were unionists.

Despite the horror, Nelson said, solidarity helped Flight Attendants pull through the harrowing days afterwards. Now, they’ve been trained to be “the first line of defense” against hijackers and terrorists, AFA-CWA President Veda Shook added.

“We found comfort in our co-workers and courage to get on an airplane again,” Nelson added. “But for us, there will always be a ‘before’ and an ‘after.’” Nelson, too, paid tribute to Betty Ong, saying that in the famed phone call, “She was one of the first to recognize and describe the forces of evil” that brought the planes down.

Besides the Fire Fighters, the Flight Attendants, the APFA members and the Air Line Pilots, members of 25 other unions died in the attacks. SEIU represented almost 60, either by itself or in a joint New York union with AFT. The Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees lost 42 members who toiled at Windows on the World, the restaurant atop one of the Twin Towers.

The flight crews and the 600-plus other unionists “were the first to die in a war we didn’t know we were fighting. I can hear their laughs. I can see their smiles. And that’s still very hard,” Nelson concluded.
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