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  • Writer's pictureDr. Tracy A. Pearson, J.D.

Defy Chain of Command: A Reflection on 9/11

Updated: Nov 28, 2021

What I remember aside from the inconceivable images of fire, smoke, and the collapse of two landmarks that were central to the Manhattan skyline is the quiet. The quiet that stood in stark contrast to the cacophony of screams and gasps assaulting my ears through the television.

20 years passed in the blink of an eye.

I was 26, then, and in my second year of law school. I know exactly where I was standing and who I was standing next to, watching the television in the crowded student lounge. I remember feeling rudderless. Classes were cancelled. After a time, not sure what to do, I wandered to my office on campus. Walking to the heart of campus, under a brilliant blue sky, I wondered at the pure silence outside - all of the planes were grounded and I never heard such quiet. You don't realize the ambient noise created overhead.

If I were asked what does it mean to get older, it's this:

There are two national tragedies imprinted on me. The first was the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger. I was in 5th Grade. The second was 9/11.

Kids today don't have the same raw feelings I have about these two events. Anyone younger than 35 (Challenger) or younger than 20 (9/11) wouldn't.

Pearl Harbor or the assassinations of JFK or RFK, while important, these tragedies evoke no bodily sensation or emotion in me. Instead, I learned about them through reading history books, watching movies, and documentaries. With 9/11, it's visceral.

In the last few years, I've dreaded 9/11. The news programs ramping up to the anniversary airing what I watched in real time, reimprinting the trauma. I watch less of this programming each year; the sensationalized movies are a hard pass. It could be that the last four years were breath-holding anniversary wondering would our country make it through the somber day without the then-President disparaging or dishonoring those more directly impacted. Yet, each year I learn something new. This year I learned the name of Betty Ong.

I don't know how I didn't know of her. Maybe the constant discussion of people on Flight 93 doing what humans do - trying to survive, with the benefit of information relayed by others - drowned her out like the ambient noise of aircraft overhead.

Ms. Ong was an off-duty flight attendant on American Airlines Flight 11 - the first plane. On 9/11, Ms. Ong was one year younger than I am today. She had intense eyes and a genuine welcoming smile. I can tell that she would be able to calm anxious passengers with ease.

Then living in Andover, MA, Ms. Ong was flying to Los Angeles to go on vacation to Hawaii with her sister. I know both Andover and Los Angeles well. In 2018, then living in the next town over to Andover, I would take a similar flight - to relocate to a city I had never been to take a job that was a must-do for the survival of my family. I would fly Boston to Los Angeles. The same hour. The same Airport. My ticket was one-way by choice. Ms. Ong's was not.

Ms. Ong was in a jump seat and she was the first person to report the hijacking. In doing so, she went outside what her training told her to do. She went outside protocol, outside chain of command.

She relayed information for 25 minutes; she relayed all of the information she had, including the seat numbers of highjackers so that authorities could identify them, what transpired in the cabin, and we'd fairly quickly be able to piece together the systemic gaps and failures because of this critical information. She stayed on the telephone until she was murdered, the aircraft built to carry extra fuel colliding with the North Tower at 8:46:40 am.

Her call led to the ground stop that grounded every airplane in the country.

Ms. Ong doesn't receive enough credit. People who go outside chain of command rarely do. She wasn't on the clock. There was nothing anyone could do to save her or the other passengers and crew; she had to know that. It's not like the 405 and CHP can put down spike strips or ram it to stop. In asking Ms. Ong questions, the airline was also calculating fuel onboard. It was a flying bomb.

Ms. Ong was trained in protocol and chain of command, but on the morning of September 11, 2001, she chose to act. Her actions were heroic not in who was saved, but in what information was learned. Ms. Ong could have sat silent, in terror, hurtling through the sky. She chose to use a calling card and make a call on one of the old airline "Airfones" to tell someone what was happening. Reaching for her wallet. Choosing the card. Removing the card from the wallet. Swiping the card or keying in the number. Dialing the American Airlines Reservations number. Waiting to be connected. Each act a deliberate choice to defy her training and company expectations. Each act a personal risk to herself and others. There were people with purported bombs, spraying toxic aerosolized irritant, carrying knives, who had injured/killed people already. She didn't have to act. It wasn't her job that day. Someone else could have stepped up who was in the appropriate role. She could have waited for instructions. She, after all, was not a member of the crew and was subordinate to their orders. She could have asked permission. She did none of these things. She stepped outside protocol and used her power and her knowledge to alert authorities.

Everyday we are faced with choices. Each of us has power. When faced with a choice to share what you know, endeavor to use your respective power to be like Ms. Ong. Let her willingness to act in spite of fear and futility be her legacy. Let your actions be driven not by what you might gain, but how it may benefit others. Let your knowledge and your respective power act as sunlight illuminating what needs to be seen like the bright sunlight glinting off the Twin Towers on 9/11 before everything changed.

You can read about the Chinese American, Betty Ong, who alerted authorities here.

God rest her soul.

Never forget.

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