Originally published Sept. 11, 2014

Six years ago Cathie Ong-Herrera was invited to speak at the academy graduation of 200 FBI agents in Portland, Ore.

The agency's Oregon office wanted its newly minted agents to hear from someone who had been affected by terrorism.

Ong-Herrera qualified.

Her sister, Betty Ann Ong, was a flight attendant on American Airlines Flight 11 the day the jetliner slammed into the north tower of Manhattan's World Trade Center. For millions of people, the world stopped turning for several dizzying hours that day.

Betty wasn't simply a victim. She was a rock. She called an American Airlines representative on the ground to tell them the flight had been hijacked. By the time Flight 11 embedded itself in the north tower, between the 96th and 103rd floors, airline officials already had a good idea of the identity of the four terrorists aboard the plane.

Officials at the Portland FBI office wanted their newest G-men and G-women to understand something of how that felt to those who'd been left behind.

"They were just very warm," Ong-Herrera, a longtime Bakersfield resident, recalled of the visit. "They came up to me afterward and wanted to hug me. It was quite an experience."

The experience made a deep impression on Ong-Herrera for another reason, though. FBI officials made it very clear that another attack was likely -- somewhere, some day, some time.

"They talked about foiled attempts they'd stopped within our country, about the terror cells within our country," she said. "They made it clear that as time goes on they're gaining more power, too."

And that was six years ago. Today, with the rise of ISIS, a terror organization that touches disaffected Americans with greater reach and efficiency than any such organization before it, the problem is compounded.

And that, Ong-Herrera, is precisely why the nonprofit she and others founded in her sister's honor a decade ago is more important than ever.

The Betty Ann Ong Foundation, dedicated to honoring Betty's interest in the welfare of children, contributes to the Bakersfield Police Activities League and the Betty Ann Ong Chinese Recreation Center in San Francisco's Chinatown, among other groups. The nonprofit -- whose 2012 contributions from donors totaled $181,000 -- "provides training and guidance on nutrition, health, physical activities, leadership skills, critical thinking skills, planning, group and team activities, and community awareness and cohesiveness," in the words of board member David Huff.

But to Ong-Herrera, the organization also helps preserve a sense of community.

"We really need to be together as we go forward," she said. "I am a strong believer in the power of the events of Sept. 11 to do that. As we move farther away from that event and people have started to forget, and people attend remembrance ceremonies less and less, it becomes important for us to stay together.

"It's more than me just promoting Betty. This didn't just happen to the family members of those lost, it happened to our homeland. A lot of people are trying to get us, and if we don't remember, if we don't stay vigilant, we are vulnerable.

"So you can't forget."

Ong-Herrera certainly won't. But she will spend one of the quieter Sept. 11ths of her post-9/11 life. She will actually go to her day job and, though she'll give a couple of TV interviews, she'll go home at the end of the day, same as she did on Aug. 11.

But she's never off the clock when it comes to this now-13-year-old purpose in her life. She prays America never clocks out on it either.

Email Robert Price at rprice@bakersfield.com.

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