'She called the right person': Strangers connected by 9/11 tragedy meet ahead of Christmas

CARY, N.C. (WTVD) -- Complete strangers connected 20 years ago by the tragedy of September 11, got together ahead of the Christmas holiday.

"This conversation has just made my day," Harry Ong said. "I can see Christmas a little bit brighter with this conversation. It makes it a little more peaceful."

Ong and Vanessa Minter are essentially strangers, if not for one haunting phone call.

Vanessa Minter, a reservations agent at the American Airlines call center in Cary, answered a call to her desk just before 8:30 a.m. on September 11, 2001. The woman on the other side of the line was Betty Ong, a flight attendant on an American Airlines flight traveling from Boston to Los Angeles.

This conversation is where history starts.

"I think of her every day," Minter told ABC11. "The hardest thing for me to realize is I was the last person she spoke to and I did not know her at all. She was a fine young lady and professional in everything she did on that call. It was just amazing because I don't think I could've done that."

Minter first spoke to ABC11 earlier this year to mark the 20th Anniversary of the terrorist attack.

"Realizing what was going on, it was surprising she didn't just call her family," Minter said. "I could not comfort her. I could not tell her it would be alright. I couldn't bring up something about her family that would make her feel better."

For 20 years, Minter said that she has lived with that regret. Though she wrote a letter saying as much to Betty Ong's family in California, she had never had the chance to express her feelings directly in person.

READ MORE: 20 Years Later: Family remembers 9/11 hero and Bay Area native, Betty Ong

This holiday season, however, ABC11 and its sister station in San Francisco, ABC7, helped facilitate a virtual reunion between Minter and Ong's surviving brother, Harry.

"It's exciting because it's like meeting family," Minter said ahead of the call. "I just accepted her as part of my family."

Unanswered questions and unfinished business

The virtual call between Vanessa Minter and Harry Ong lasted nearly an hour and was as natural as it would be between two siblings.

After first asking about the health of each other's family, the conversation quickly pivoted to Betty, her life, her legacy, and the feelings about her that Minter said she has been holding on to for two decades.

"What I want for people to understand is that your sister was absolutely amazing," Minter told Ong. "She is someone that needs to be held as a role model because she was the epitome of what needs to be done. You can tell by her voice and her mannerisms this was real and this is what she had to do. And she and I were on it."

Indeed, the Ong family was able to hear Betty's voice on a four minute recording of the phone call when it was shared at a hearing of the official 9/11 Commission in 2004. Still, Harry yearned for more details about what was said and what was happening on the ground.

"Were you holding two phones? Who was in the room?" Harry Ong asked Vanessa at one point in their call. "I'm picturing two phones juggling conversations."

"In the Command Center it was like that," Minter explained. "When the FBI came in, the big people, I felt like I was in the way because people kept walking in and around me."

Ong and Minter also shared with each other their own struggles with grief and trauma.

"I could not understand why (Betty's call) fell into my phone," Minter said. "It just wasn't fair she didn't get to call you, her sister or her mother. I couldn't come to grips to that and be OK. She was entitled to do that, to speak with people she loved and she didn't know me from anyone."

Ong, without missing a beat, responded, "Well I have to say, she called the right person."

Christmas blessings and prayers for only good news

A few blocks away from the World Trade Center, recovery crews found a bone fragment that DNA matched to Betty Ong. That fragment was returned to California where the Ongs were able to offer Betty a traditional funeral and proper resting place.

As their reunion call drew to a close, Minter promised to come visit the Ongs in California and visit that Memorial.

"I consider you and your sister part of my family," Minter said.

For Harry Ong, the call was well worth the wait.
Copyright © 2022 WTVD-TV. All Rights Reserved.