'I think we might have lost her.' With that heartbreaking statement, spoken by a Dallas-based American Airlines employee three years ago next month, one of the greatest tragedies in US history had begun. It is precisely 7.59am on a radiant September morning when American Airlines Flight 11 lifts off from Boston's Logan Airport. Rising through a brilliant blue sky, they are bound for Los Angeles. On board that day are 92 people: 81 passengers, two pilots and a cabin crew of nine. Sitting in Business Class are Mohamed Atta and four fellow terrorists. Less than 30 minutes after take-off, the Boeing 767 is deliberately flown by Atta into the North Tower of New York's World Trade Centre. A second aircraft, also hijacked by terrorists, follows soon after, hitting the South Tower. A third plane is then purposely plunged into the Pentagon. Finally, a fourth aircraft, enroute to a second terrorist-suicide attack on Washington, plummets into a rural Pennsylvania field. By 10.30am, both towers have collapsed and the Pentagon is in flames. The terrorist attack has killed more than 3,000 people in New York and Washington, making it the greatest American catastrophe of modern times. But for the close-knit Ong family of San Francisco, this tragedy is dreadfully personal. The 'her' referred to by American Airlines' employee Nydia Gonzalez, is Flight Attendant Betty Anne Ong - their beloved sister and daughter. Ong is a victim of the terrorist attack. Yet she is also a genuine hero of 9/11. In fact, she is the first American hero of that fateful day. Within five minutes of her airplane being hijacked, and despite the murderous mayhem on board, Ong courageously grabs a crew phone to coolly call colleagues on the ground. Her call comes through to Vanessa Minter, an American Airlines agent in North Carolina. Minter then conferences the call through to Nydia Gonzales in Dallas, who is responsible for dealing with security issues. Then, for the next 23 minutes, the 45-year-old Ong gives authorities a precise and detailed account of what happens as the minutes tick by. In a composed and confident voice, Ong tells ground staff she believes there are three or four of hijackers on board, and that they are of Middle Eastern extraction. Ong, together with fellow flight attendant Amy Sweeney, also relays a report of the carnage on board Flight 11 - the first-class galley attendant, stabbed; the purser, stabbed. The terrorists have also slashed the throat of a business class passenger, who is bleeding profusely ... passengers are forced to the rear of the aircraft. They are unable to breathe due to some type of pepper spray or possibly mace ... the terrorists are locked in the cockpit with the pilots. Despite such mid-air horrors, Betty Ong remains calm. She carefully identifies the seat numbers in which the terrorists had been sitting. Armed with this information, the FBI will soon learn the names, addresses and passport details of the hijackers. Ong also tells ground officials that the hijackers entered the cockpit carrying a bomb with yellow wires attached. The flight attendants give the injured passengers oxygen. An announcement is made over the PA asking if there's a doctor on board. Neither they nor the passengers can know what demands the hijackers might have. Ong tells Ms Gonzalez that there's no doctor to treat the flight attendants - one of whom she suspects is already dead. Fifteen minutes after Ong first alerts the world to what's happening, the big Boeing suddenly lurches, tilting wildly to one side, before becoming level again. Ong reports that the plane is flying erratically. She tells Ms Gonzalez she thinks the pilots are no longer flying the airplane. The 767 is now approaching Manhattan. It's flying lower and lower. Still on the line, Ong says in a composed voice: 'Pray for us. Pray for us.' Seconds later the line goes dead. Nydia Gonzalez asks: 'What's going on, Betty? Betty, talk to me ... Are you there? Betty?' Born and raised in San Francisco's bustling Chinatown district, Betty Ong enjoyed a near idyllic American childhood. As the youngest sibling, she was known to the family as Bee, and was doted on by elder brother, Harry, and older sisters, Cathie and Gloria. Their parents, Harry Snr, now 84, and her mum, Oy Yee-gum, 78, both born in the American midwest, owned a small specialist grocery store in the city, where they often worked long hours seven days a week. Both Ong's grandparents emigrated from China sometime after the first world war. All the Ong kids attended George Washington High School. As a teenager, Ong grew to be a tall and attractive girl. She was self-conscious about her willowy 175cm height, but it helped her excel in such sports as basketball and volleyball. Like most Chinese-Americans, the Ong family enjoyed traditional meals during Lunar New Year, when their parents were able to enjoy a rare few days off work. All four Ong children spoke some Cantonese. In 1987, just after her parents retired, and before she joined American Airlines, Ong went with them and Harry on a trip to Hong Kong and China, where they visited their ancestral home. It was a tedious four-hour ride from Guangzhou over rough rural roads. When they arrived they met old friends and relatives of their grandparents. 'They really believed that everyone in America had made it big,' her brother says, laughing at the memory of handing out many red lai see packets. As first time visitors, both Ong and he were startled by Hong Kong, a crowded, bursting-at-the-seems beehive, where both poverty and wealth existed side by side. They also found the pace of 1980s Hong Kong far faster than the streets of San Francisco. 'Everyone who knew Betty really loved her,' says Harry, a youthful-looking pharmacist in his early 50s. Sister Cathie agrees: 'Bee just made everybody feel like they knew her right away. She had a knack for making people feel at ease. She was feminine, and very caring. And she loved people. She loved to laugh and she loved to bring out the humour in a situation.' 'When we spoke to colleagues who had flown with Betty, they told us that while on late night cross-country flights many flight attendants tend to relax after serving dinner,' Harry says. 'But Betty always made it a point to stroll the cabin, making sure that everyone was alright. She was especially mindful of older passengers, and always checked to see if there was anything they needed, an extra blanket, a glass of water, a cup of tea.' Even on her last day, Betty Ong took extra time to look after an elderly person. In an e-mail to Ong's family, Joyce Toto, who lives outside Boston, wrote: 'I never knew Betty. However, my dad did. He works for American Airlines as a gate guard; a gate which Betty passed to go to work everyday. On that awful day, Betty had kissed my 78-year-old dad on the cheek, and said goodbye and asked him to wish her luck. I can't tell you the joy she brought to this man's life every day with her smile. You see, my mum had just passed away, and Betty cheered him up daily.' Ten days after September 11, about 2,000 mourners gathered in a sun-dappled park in San Francisco to honour Ong's life. Reverend Norman Fong of Chinatown's Presbyterian Church mediated the service. An organist played America the Beautiful. San Francisco Police Chief Fred Lau, a lifelong family friend, was there and San Francisco firefighters escorted the Ong family. The office of California Senator Feinstein presented them with an American flag that had flown over the US Capitol. The city's mayor, Willie Brown, proclaimed September 21 as Betty Ong Day and said: 'When 180,000 San Franciscans say their prayers, they can say the angel, Betty Ong, by name.' Ong's family always felt that she was their hero. But it wasn't until many months after the terrorist attack that they also knew that she was a nation's hero. At a second memorial service held in October, 2001, 70 of her American Airlines co-workers flew from Boston to San Francisco to attend. It was here that they were introduced to Nydia Gonzalez, the American Airlines staffer who had been the last person to speak to her. Ms Gonzalez told the family about her 23-minute conversation with Ong and that a four-minute tape of it existed. The family was stunned. When Harry Ong contacted the FBI, he was told that the agency couldn't release a tape due to 'national security issues', but that American Airlines had a copy and they could legally release it to the family. Yet when Harry called the airline, they refused to give a copy, claiming the FBI said it couldn't be released. Angered by this absurd runaround, Harry contacted Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy. Ong was a long-term Massachusetts resident. Within 24 hours, officials brought a copy of the tape to the Ong family. On January 28, 2004, a copy of that tape was played before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the US, commonly called 'The 9/11 Commission'. Hearing Ong's poised, professional voice relating vital information of what was happening aboard her hijacked plane led commission chairman Thomas Kean to declare: 'Betty Ong is a true American hero.' Making a formal statement before the commission, American Airlines staffer Gonzales said: 'With the assistance of her fellow crew members, Betty was able to provide us with vital information that would later prove crucial to the investigation. Betty's selfless acts of courage and determination may have saved the lives of many others. She provided important information which ultimately led to the closing of our nation's airspace for the first time in its history.' Discussing Ong's courageous performance, Ms Gonzales said she showed absolutely no fear at all during the 23-minute conversation. 'It was never about 'Help me, pray for me',' Gonzales said. 'It was about 'Pray for us, help us' - that's a totally selfless person.' Ong's parents and siblings also listened at the lengthy congressional hearing. Cathie Ong recalls: 'It's hard for us all to imagine ever being in those shoes. My family and I cried. She was just exemplary in her performance, her attitude and everything.' Betty Ong will again be honoured on September 22 in San Francisco, both as a city native and as an American hero, by the Chinese Community Centre. Among the many people there will be family friend Fred Lau who, like so many people, was deeply affected by Ong's courage. 'Betty is one of the primary reasons I retired from my position as Chief of the San Francisco Police Department,' he says. 'I wanted to do something meaningful to contribute to the security of our nation and to pay honour to Betty.' In July 2002, Lau joined the government's Transportation Security Administration as one of the nation's Federal Security Directors. 'Betty was aboard her American Airlines flight, doing her job, steadfastly protecting her passengers until the end, under unbelievable adversity,' says Mr Lau. 'She continued broadcasting information to the ground until her broadcast was ended. The crash into the Twin Towers took the life of a dear friend and a true American hero.' Despite the passing of time, for Ong's parents, there is still immense pain. Harry recently found his father quietly weeping, and at the thought of that, his voice, too, cracks ever so slightly. 'It's not easy,' he says quietly, 'for a parent to lose a child.' But while the pain will always be there, the Ong Family can take genuine pride in the fact that their beloved daughter, and sister, was that rare person who embodied both exceptional courage and uncommon kindness. And that Betty Ong truly was a person who literally made the world a better place simply by being in it.