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CURRENT ISSUE:  September 18, 2006VOL. 44, NO. 16Oakland, CA

Remembering Sept. 11
Widow Deena Burnett speaks of pain, faith, recovery


On Sept. 11 five years ago, Deena Burnett received the fourth and final phone call from her husband, Tom, from hijacked Flight 93. She begged him, “Sit down, be quiet and don’t draw attention to yourself.” He refused.

In doing so, he and his fellow passengers became heroes to the American people. In a speech on Sept. 6 at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, Burnett emphasized that their heroism “was made over a lifetime of virtues. Actions built on character, courage and convictions.”

“He and fellow passengers were the first to fight back against terrorism,” said Burnett, who described in detail how her husband formulated a plan to take back the airplane over a rural area and led crew and passengers down the aisle to the cockpit of Flight 93, averting the terrorists’ plan to crash into the White House.

All the passengers died, but no one on the ground was killed.
“In fighting back, they made a difference, but Tom would have said he was just doing the right thing. Each of us can be a hero; you don’t have to have a tragic story, a podium or a spotlight. By making good choices, we each can make an impact on the world.”

Of the thousands of e-mails that poured in following her husband’s death, Burnett said three of them stood out: a 7-year-old boy, now grown, who had never forgotten how Tom, the high school football star, had taught him to throw a football; a woman whose conversation with Tom about how much he loved his family led her to reconcile with her father; an EMT who had discussed his job with
Tom and started a business training flight attendants on how to deal with emergency situations.

“Tom didn’t know the impact he’d made on these people,” Burnett said. “He had just lived as kind, compassionate.”

For Saint Mary’s sophomore Michael Antonopoulos, listening to Burnett describe her final conversations with her husband filled him with emotion. “I thought about the thousands of people who died, but also the thousands they knew and what a huge impact one person can have,” he said. “It definitely made me think how we’re only a small part of the world, but we can make a huge difference.”

Since that morning five years ago when Tom Burnett called his wife in San Ramon, telling her the plane had been hijacked, Deena Burnett has become an ambassador for not only the victims of that fateful day, but also for those she calls “everyday heroes.”

She’s been speaking predominantly at colleges and universities to students who may have been too young to fully grasp the gravity of Sept. 11. “I’m doing God’s work and finishing what they started,” said Burnett, who with her husband was a member of St. Isidore Parish in Danville.

About a year after the attacks, Burnett moved with her three daughters to Little Rock, Ark., where her family lives so they could help with the girls. She remarried three months ago.

During her talk at St. Mary’s she recalled how each child reacted differently to losing their father. Her youngest daughter Anna Clare would scream at her, “I hate you!” and run away from her or push her away. Halley would go off in the corner and stand behind a curtain and cry, and Madison would tell everyone she could about how her father was a hero.

“I read a lot of books, tried to find a child psychologist, but they wouldn’t see children under the age of seven. I stayed in touch with my pediatrician and my priest and I searched the Internet for answers, but most of all, I listened intently to my kids and told them I loved them,” said Burnett. “On faith and prayer, you can always do what you need to do.”

Toward the end of her talk, Burnett shared a conversation with Tom that she believes was a moment of grace from God.

“For about a year before he died, Tom began to attend Mass during his lunch breaks. He told me he felt like God was trying to tell him something, like he had a message for him. All he knew was that it was going to impact a great many people and it would involve the White House,” she said.

“I wonder if it was part of God’s plan, trying to tell him what was to come.”

(The family of Tom Burnett has established a foundation to honor his life and leadership by educating young people to be good citizens and leaders. The foundation offers middle schools a curriculum that nurtures the hero in every student and teaches the value of community involvement. The foundation has given leadership scholarships at three universities and two high schools and helped to establish three special camps for children who have suffered the loss of someone close to them. Information about the foundation’s work is available at: www.tomburnettfoundation.org)

Jennifer Wake is a writer in the Office of College Communications at Saint Mary’s College.

Deena Burnett with her daughters.


Beverly and Thomas Burnett Sr. hold a picture of their son, Thomas Jr., at a memorial site at St. Edward Parish in Bloomington, MN, where they were members for 40 years.


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