Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A Life Remembered: Tom Burnett

Tom Burnett's name is probably one of the most recognized names of those that perished on September 11. Tom Burnett was a born leader and up until his last moments in this life, he continued to work the problem and never saw failure as an option that fateful day. There is little I can add to these accounts. His heroic actions have been documented in the 9/11 Commission Report, in movies, in documentaries, on countless websites and books. His wife, Deena keeps Tom's memory alive through the Tom Burnett Family Foundation. Tom often said that one of the most-noble pursuits in life is raising our children to be “good citizens.” The Tom Burnett Family Foundation is dedicated to helping young people in this country to become good citizens and future leaders, so his legacy will go continue.

On a personal note, everything I have read, everything that I have learned about this man, I would have liked him very much. He would have had my profound respect. I could see myself flying his flag at work and following his lead. He was a man of conviction, integrity and strong moral character. I would have loved working for a man of this caliber.

Born and raised in Bloomington, Minnesota, Tom attended public schools Ridgeview Elementary, Olson Middle School, and graduated with honors from Thomas Jefferson High School. Wearing number 11 in high school, Tom played quarterback for the Jefferson Jaguars and was recruited to play football by several universities and chose Saint John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota. He enjoyed the conversations and discourse with the Benedictine monks who lived there, and often said his experience provided incredible depth to his faith in God. After two years, an injury shortened his football career and he transferred to the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. He was named President of the Alpha Kappa Psi Fraternity, then later graduated with a B.S. degree in Finance. Working with Thoratec, a medical device company, he climbed the ladder to corporate success quickly. He received an M.B.A. degree from Pepperdine University and was making plans to work on his doctorate.

By 1989, he'd met Deena in Atlanta, where she'd just completed flight-attendant training for Delta Airlines. Their first date was at an Applebee's where they spent six hours talking. She knew she would marry him after he unscrewed the light bulb above the table and tossed it over his shoulder, shattering it on the floor. "I'm trying to create a mood here," he told her, "and this light's not helping." They married in April 1992 after a "romance in the air." Since Burnett traveled all week, the couple would meet in airports, or Deena would leave notes for him on planes. They agreed they were as comfortable in planes as they were in cars. But in 1995, when Deena was expecting, she stopped flying.
Years later, as senior vice president and chief operating officer of Thoratec Corp., known nationally for its creation of heart assist pumps, he was successful beyond his earlier dreams. Burnett would tell his wife, Deena, that he couldn't believe his achievements.

Articulate and competitive, a motivator who could talk a person into almost anything, Burnett was a born salesman. While he couldn't talk his mother into letting him fish from the edge of a dock as a 3-year-old, he did persuade her to let him sit in the middle of it and drop his line through the cracks.

Burnett entered fatherhood on his own terms. He liked pushing their three girls around the neighborhood in the stroller, but only while smoking a cigar. Diapers, baths and feeding were on an as-needed basis.

For all his traveling, Burnett was cautious. Long wanting to parachute, he backed out when the chance came, worrying about his family. And when the two of them left for a vacation, he insisted they take separate planes so an accident wouldn't leave the children parentless.

By Deena’s own telling, her husband of nine years thought of himself as anything but a hero. He was a man who, at thirty-eight, held a senior executive position at a respected medical device company headquartered in Pleasanton, California. He was a loving husband and father who adored his three young girls. He worked hard, was respected by his colleagues, and, on a daily basis, practiced quiet acts of integrity, honesty, respect, and kindness toward those with whom he came in contact.

“He was a man of heartfelt compassion, deep convictions, love, and had a keen sense of right and wrong, and he believed that morals and values were not debatable. To have died with such honor and valor is befitting of my husband.

“His actions, and those of his fellow passengers, are a call to each of us to stand for our beliefs and convictions,” Deena continued. “If he were here tonight, he would ask you to go one step further and to honor him by living a life worthy of those who have died for our freedom, and to remember that heroes can give their lives all at one time, or they can give a little each day.”

Tom lived his last minutes of life they way he had lived all the previous minutes. He knew what he and his fellow passengers were facing. Tom took the lead and organized the effort aboard United Flight 93. Allowing the terrorists to succeed was not an option. He and the passengers of Flight 93 died heroically. They thwarted the efforts of the bad guys. Yes, Tom Burnett was a citizen soldier.

6:27 a.m.( pacific time) First cell phone call from Tom to Deena

Deena: Hello
Tom: Deena
Deena: Tom, are you O.K.?
Tom: No, I’m not. I’m on an airplane that has been hijacked.
Deena: hijacked?
Tom: Yes, They just knifed a guy.
Deena: A passenger?
Tom: Yes.
Deena: Where are you? Are you in the air?
Tom: Yes, yes, just listen. Our airplane has been hijacked. It’s United Flight 93 from Newark to San Francisco. We are in the air. The hijackers have already knifed a guy, one of them has a gun, they are telling us there is a bomb on board, please call the authorities. He hung up.

6:31 Deena calls 911
6:34 The phone rang in on call waiting, Tom’s second cell phone call.
Deena: Hello
Tom: They’re in the cockpit. The guy they knifed is dead.
Deena: He’s dead?
Tom: Yes. I tried to help him, but I couldn’t get a pulse.
Deena: Tom, they are hijacking planes all up and down the east coast. They are taking them and hitting designated targets. They’ve already hit both towers of the World Trade Center.
Tom: They’re talking about crashing this plane. (a pause) Oh my God. It’s a suicide mission…(he then tells people sitting around him)
Deena: Who are you talking to?
Tom: My seatmate. Do you know which airline is involved?
Deena: No, they don’t know if they’re commercial airlines or not. The news reporters are speculating cargo planes, private planes and commercial. No one knows.
Tom: How many planes are there?
Deena: They’re not sure, at least three. Maybe more.
Tom: O.K….O.K….Do you know who is involved?
Deena: No.
Tom: We’re turning back toward New York. We’re going back to the World Trade Center. No, wait, we’re turning back the other way. We’re going south.
Deena: What do you see?
Tom: Just a minute, I’m looking. I don’t see anything, we’re over a rural area. It’s just fields. I’ve gotta go.
He hung up.

6:45 a.m. Third cell phone call from Tom to Deena
Tom: Deena
Deena: Tom, you’re O.K. (I thought at this point he had just survived the Pentagon plane crash).
Tom: No, I’m not.
Deena: They just hit the Pentagon.
Tom: (tells people sitting around him “They just hit the Pentagon.”)
Tom: O.K….O.K. What else can you tell me?
Deena: They think five airplanes have been hijacked. One is still on the ground. They believe all of them are commercial planes. I haven’t heard them say which airline, but all of them have originated on the east coast.
Tom: Do you know who is involved?
Deena: No
Tom: What is the probability of their having a bomb on board? I don’t think they have one. I think they’re just telling us that for crowd control.
Deena: A plane can survive a bomb if it’s in the right place.
Tom: Did you call the authorities?
Deena: Yes, they didn’t know anything about your plane.
Tom: They’re talking about crashing this plane into the ground. We have to do something. I’m putting a plan together.
Deena: Who’s helping you?
Tom: Different people. Several people. There’s a group of us. Don’t worry. I’ll call you back.

6:54 a.m. Fourth cell phone call to Tom to Deena
Deena: Tom?
Tom: Hi. Anything new?
Deena: No
Tom: Where are the kids?
Deena: They’re fine. They’re sitting at the table having breakfast. They’re asking to talk to you.
Tom: Tell them I’ll talk to them later
Deena: I called your parents. They know your plane has been hijacked.
Tom: Oh…you shouldn’t have worried them. How are they doing?
Deena: They’re O.K.. Mary and Martha are with them.
Tom: Good. (a long quiet pause) We’re waiting until we’re over a rural area. We’re going to take back the airplane.
Deena: No! Sit down, be still, be quiet, and don’t draw attention to yourself! (The exact words taught to me by Delta Airlines Flight Attendant Training).
Tom: Deena! If they’re going to crash this plane into the ground, we’re going to have do something!
Deena: What about the authorities?
Tom: We can’t wait for the authorities. I don’t know what they could do anyway.
It’s up to us. I think we can do it.
Deena: What do you want me to do?
Tom: Pray, Deena, just pray.
Deena: (after a long pause) I love you.
Tom: Don’t worry, we’re going to do something.
He hung up

"Don't worry, we're going to do something."- Tom Burnett

Thomas Edward Burnett Jr.
May 29, 1963 - September 11, 2001

Sources:Tom Burnett Family Foundation
Among the Heroes: United Flight 93 and the Passengers and Crew Who Fought Back, by Jere Longman
Post Gazette
September 11 Victims
Pepperdine University Press Release

Also for Project 2996:

2012: I remember Louis J. Nacke II
2011: I remember Jeremy Glick.
2011: I remember Mark Bingham.
2010: I remember Don and Jean Peterson.
2009: I remember Hilda Marcin.
2008: I remember Toshiya Kuge.
2007: I remember Tom Burnett.
2007: I remember Deora Bodley.
2006: I remember Marion Britton.


  1. Oh my goodness. This is so good.

    I posted a tribute to Tom in 2005, but this one is so good. I'll bow out on Tom and select another one.

  2. Heartbreaking to think of his family sitting at the table as this was unfolding. What a brave guy. God bless him and his family.

  3. Amazing story!
    Read about Ronald John Hemenway who died at the Pentagon that day:
    here at my blog.

  4. This is an amazing story- him and his family are so brave.

    Very well written, Cathy. :)

  5. Beautiful, Cathy. My post (a republication of my original in 2006) goes up at banjooflife.blogspot.com just after midnight.

  6. The call between Ton and Deana had the tears going again. Very moving.