Twenty years ago on September 11, 2001, the unthinkable happened. A group of terrorists carried out an attack against the United States. The horrors of that day will never be forgotten. Yet, neither will the outpouring of sympathy that came from people around the world, who came together to pay their respects and denounce the atrocities of this event. It is in the unknown stories – of individuals, communities, and leaders on that day and many afterwards – that remind us of the fortitude and strength of the human spirit.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, Chinese American Betty Ann Ong was flying on American Airlines Flight 11 to meet her sister in Los Angeles, California, before heading to Hawaii for vacation. Within minutes of takeoff, five hijackers on board overtook the cockpit and rerouted the flight. The Boeing 767 was heading to New York City. Ong had been an American Airlines flight attendant for 14 years, and as soon as the hijackers took over, she acted on instinct.
“The cockpit’s not answering,” Ong said in a steady voice after she made a call to the airline’s reservation center in Raleigh, North Carolina. “Somebody’s stabbed in business class and — I think there’s mace — that we can’t breathe. I don’t know, I think we’re getting hijacked.” She went on to relay vital information about the identities of the hijackers and the hijacking from other flight attendants. Ong’s telephone call was the first call and indication that the United States was under attack. Her call eventually led to the shutdown of flights nationwide. Keeping passengers safe and calm during the flight, Ong’s courageous professionalism will be remembered forever.
In New York City’s Chinatown, residents were more deeply affected by 9/11 than many realized. The residential neighborhood with an estimated population of 90,000 to 100,000 people, including the largest concentration of Chinese immigrants in the western hemisphere, is within earshot of the Twin Towers. Not only did Chinatown residents experienced the immediate consequences of the blast, but many are still feeling lasting effects from the devastation of twenty years ago.
Peter Lee, who owns Hop Kee, a Cantonese restaurant that is located in the heart of Chinatown since 1968, almost lost the restaurant after 9/11. “This here [Chinatown] in lower Manhattan just stopped for three to six months,” Lee lamented in an interview with CNBC.
In the wake of the attacks, Chinatown was completely cut off, losing both power and water. The area lost 60-100 percent of its revenue while nearly three-quarters of the workforce lost their jobs. Still, residents of Chinatown persisted until they overcame their adversities and prospered again. Nineteen years later, a new set of challenges emerged. In the summer months following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, 54 percent of the neighborhood’s restaurants were closed after people shunned Chinese businesses as a result of xenophobic rhetoric linked to the virus’s origins in Wuhan, China. This compared to the less than 40 percent of restaurant shutdowns citywide, a stark imbalance rarely seen from neighborhood to neighborhood. After shutting down for two weeks during the pandemic, Hop Kee re-opened and began to run business as usual. Lee credits 9/11 for teaching him to be resilient and fight for resources in order to continue serving his customers.
Acts of camaraderie went as far as the East. After news of the attacks broke in China, citizens flocked to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and lined the sidewalk with flowers and cards in remembrance of those who lost their lives. Messages of love poured from the country as citizens expressed their deepest sorrows.
“On behalf of the Chinese government and people, I wish to express to you and, through you, to the U.S. Government and people, our deep sympathy and condolences to the families of the victims,” former president Jiang Zemin mourned in a call with former president George W. Bush just two days after 9/11. During their conversation, Jiang noted China was closely following updates on the rescue mission. “We are ready to provide all necessary support and assistance to the U.S. side,” he reassured.
American poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou once said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” In our ever-intertwining world, horrors such as this affect us all. The kindness and compassion the world exemplified after 9/11 offer a glimpse into our globalized world: one that is filled with messages of hope, friendship, and understanding; one that had the world saying, “Today, we are all Americans.”