Betty Ong, a flight attendant aboard Flight 11, had the presence of mind to call American Airlines when things started to turn horrible, and stayed on the phone with the company’s ground crew for more than twenty minutes. Ong’s voice was hauntingly calm at the outset, even as she relayed the crisis in progress—“The cockpit is not answering; somebody’s stabbed in business class”—and she continued to report the vital details to the ground while the hijackers’ flying grew ever more erratic. Madeline Amy Sweeney, who was recently back from maternity leave, also contacted the airline from the plane; like Ong, she passed along crucial information, such as seat numbers, that helped investigators later identify the hijackers and piece together what happened. (The last words of her call: “We are flying low. We are flying very, very low. We are flying way too low. Oh my God, we are way too low!”)
But flight attendants provided more than intelligence leads that day. On United Flight 93, where the passengers famously mobilized against the attackers, stewardesses reportedly aided the effort by boiling water to scald the terrorists. As Susan Faludi argued in her book The Terror Dream, the nation, frightened, grabbed at traditional gender roles in the wake of the attack. Our symbols of 9/11 courage were manly ones: New York’s firefighters, Rudy Giuliani, the soldiers dispatched to crush the Taliban. The steely presence of mind of the mostly female flight attendants was largely left out of the hero narrative.