Widow tells of poignant last calls
By Greg Gordon -- Bee Washington Bureau
Published 2:15 a.m. PDT Wednesday, September 11, 2002
WASHINGTON -- Deena Burnett clutched the phone at her home in San Ramon, east of San Francisco. She was at once terrified, yet strangely calmed by her husband's steady voice over his cell phone.
"Just listen," Tom said in a hushed tone. "Our airplane has been hijacked. It's United Flight 93 -- 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 ... . Please call the authorities."
He hung up. When he phoned back six minutes later, his wife told him what the rest of the world already knew: Terrorists had commandeered two other jetliners and rammed them into New York's World Trade Center.
For the next 45 minutes, Deena Burnett and Tom's family in Minnesota would pray and anguish as Tom organized a passenger insurrection. Then they would share shock and grief as the plane nose-dived into a rural Pennsylvania field, killing all on board.
But the family would take pride and comfort that Tom and other passengers died as heroes. They overpowered the hijackers and prevented them from reaching their presumed target -- the White House or the U.S. Capitol.
Honoring Tom Burnett's memory on the one-year anniversary of the attacks, his widow has provided the fullest account yet of the traumatic events that day -- of hopes that rose and fell by the minute, of lives left in sorrow by a paroxysm of terror.
Deena Burnett, who frantically took notes as she talked with her husband, has shared her reconstruction of their last, desperate conversations.
It was 6 a.m. Pacific time, but Deena was already bustling about her kitchen, wrapped in Tom's blue terrycloth robe, which she wore whenever he was away. She was cooking cinnamon waffles, the breakfast staple of her twin 5-year-olds, Halley and Madison, and 3-year-old Anna Clare, who was primed for her first day of preschool. Aimlessly, Deena flicked on the TV.
The airwaves were filled with the news that a plane had crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center. Deena, a former Delta Airlines flight attendant, shrugging it off as a bizarre accident that probably didn't involve a commercial airliner.
But moments later, when the newscast reported that a second plane had hit the south tower, she felt a rush of anxiety. Tom, a 38-year-old executive of a California medical device company, had been in New York on business and was due to fly home that day.
Tom had called his dad and mom, Thomas E. Burnett Sr. and Beverly Burnett, the evening before from the New York Marriott to describe the view from his room overlooking Times Square. He wasn't yet sure which flight he'd take home to California.
He wound up booking an early morning United flight out of Newark, N.J. Tom didn't know it as he took his seat in the first-class section, but he was surrounded by terrorists.
Shortly after the plane pulled away from the gate at 8:01 a.m., the pilot informed passengers there would be a delay because of airport congestion. United Flight 93 lifted off 41 minutes late -- at 8:42 -- a delay that bought time for Burnett and his fellow passengers to learn of the terrorists' suicide missions.
Burnett's plane had been in the air for 45 minutes when he called his wife. "Deena," he said.
"Tom, are you OK?" she asked.
"No, I'm not. I'm on an airplane that has been hijacked."
Just two minutes earlier, terrorists had burst into the cockpit and apparently killed the crew. The hijackers -- a team of four, unlike the five-man squads that seized three other planes -- herded passengers to the rear of the plane.
Their conversation was so brief that Deena was unable to tell Tom about the other planes. Her heart racing, she phoned an emergency number and was patched through to the FBI.
The FBI agent was understandably confused, thinking she was phoning about one of the planes that had already hit the World Trade Center towers. "No, no, this is a third plane," she insisted.
They were interrupted by another call. Deena's caller ID told her it was Tom. This time, he told her the terrorists were in the cockpit. "The guy they knifed is dead," he said.
"He's dead," Deena repeated.
"Yes, I tried to help him, but I couldn't get a pulse."
"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."
Deena heard Tom relay the news to another passenger: "Oh my God, it's a suicide mission."
"Who are you talking to?" Deena asked.
"My seatmate. Do you know which airline is involved?"
Deena filled him in on the little that was known.
Suddenly, Tom said, "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."
"What do you see?"
"Just a minute. ... We're over a rural area. It's fields. I've gotta go." The phone clicked.
Tom was a can-do, take-charge guy. He had been a star quarterback in high school, and had always been able to handle any situation. When he hung up, Deena knew instantly that he was going to go after the hijackers.
Making a plan
Deena's phone wouldn't stop ringing. Friends, family, everyone wanted to know whether she'd heard from Tom. A police officer arrived, but Deena refused to let him take over the phone calls from Tom. Amid the commotion, she struggled to ready her girls for school, trying to hush their complaints that they hadn't been able to talk to their dad.
"Your dad's having a little problem on the plane," she said. "He'll have to talk to you later."
Halley turned toward the gruesome images on the TV screen. "Is that Daddy's plane?" she asked.
Deena tried to be reassuring, and then came word that a plane had smashed into the Pentagon. Before she could fear the worst, Tom phoned again.
"Tom, you're OK?"
"No, I'm not."
"They just hit the Pentagon," she told him. Tom relayed the message to other passengers.
"What else can you tell me?" he asked.
"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 originated on the East Coast."
"Do you know who is involved?"
"I'm wondering 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."
"A plane can survive a bomb if it's in the right place," Deena said.
"Did you call the authorities?" he asked.
"Yes. They didn't know about your plane."
"(The hijackers) are talking about crashing this plane into the ground. We have to do something. I'm putting a plan together."
"Who's helping you?"
"Different people. Several people. There's a group of us. Don't worry. I'll call you back."
Taking back the plane
Deena had begun relaying what she knew to Tom's family back in Bloomington -- his parents and his sisters, Martha O'Brien and Mary Margaret Jurgens. When a third plane hit the Pentagon, Mary phoned Deena.
"I want you to know that I've talked to your brother since the Pentagon plane crashed," Deena told Mary. "He's still alive."
At 9:54 a.m. Eastern time, Tom rang Deena again.
"Hi, anything new?" he asked.
"Where are the kids?"
"They're fine. They're sitting at the table having breakfast. They're asking to talk to you."
"Tell them I'll talk to them later."
"I called your parents. They know your plane has been hijacked."
"Oh ... you shouldn't have worried them. How are they doing?"
"They're OK. Mary and Martha are with them," Deena said.
"Good," Tom said, then he paused. "We're waiting until we're over a rural area. We're going to take back the airplane."
Deena knew it was their only chance. But she was overcome with fear. "No!" she blurted, repeating the mantra she had learned for such scenarios as a flight attendant. "Sit down, be still, be quiet and don't draw attention to yourself!"
"Deena, if they're going to crash this plane into the ground, we're going to have to do something."
"What about the authorities?"
"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."
"What do you want me to do?"
"Pray, Deena. Just pray."
After a long silence, Deena told her husband: "I love you."
"Don't worry," he said confidently. "We're going to do something."
Deena phoned the Burnetts and told them of the plan.
A neighbor tried to comfort her as she recounted how she had tried to tell Tom to lay low. "And he won't do it," she said.
Tom's life hung in the balance, but for a moment they both shook their heads and chuckled, knowing this was typical Tom.
He can do this, Deena thought to herself.
Within minutes of learning it was a suicide hijacking, Tom apparently connected with several burly, athletic passengers, including Mark Bingham, a 6-foot-5 former member of the University of California's national championship rugby team who had been sitting next to him in the fourth row, right behind two of the hijackers; Jeremy Glick, a 6-foot-1, 220-pound former NCAA judo champ; Alan Beaven, a hulking New Zealander; Lou Nacke, a 5-foot-3, 200-pound weightlifter; and Todd Beamer, a former college basketball player, who was heard in another phone call to utter the now-famous words, "Let's roll." Each was given a task, with other passengers apparently invited to help.
'I have bad news'
Still in her husband's robe, Deena hurried upstairs to take a quick shower. She was on the way back down when the police officer met her at the bottom of the stairs.
"I think I have bad news for you," he said.
Instantly, Deena turned to the television and saw the reports of a plane crash in Pennsylvania.
"Is this Tom's plane?" she asked.
"Yes," he said.
Deena collapsed onto the sofa in tears. For several minutes, she sat grasping the phone, hoping that somehow her husband would call again.
At the Burnett home in Bloomington, family members clung to hope even when the TV announcer said a plane was "down in Pennsylvania."
Then TV cameras panned the crater where the plane had sunk into the earth, and a shock wave swept the room.
Tom Burnett Sr. paced the sidewalk outside. His wife, Beverly, sat in the kitchen, drained. Martha phoned Deena.
Deena broke into hysterical sobs.
"Deena, you have to calm down," Martha said. "I can't hear you."
"He's dead. He's dead," Deena said.
"Deena, the Lord is with you," Martha said. Deena screamed into the phone, "I needed the Lord to be with Tom!"
In the cockpit
The tape from the flight's cockpit recorder was played in New Jersey in April for about 100 relatives of the plane's 45 victims, including Deena and the Burnett family. The recorder, Deena and others said later, suggested that the passengers used a food cart to ram their way to the front of the plane and into the cockpit.
As a violent struggle ensued, the recorder captured the voices of passengers frantically trying to get the plane's nose up.
Near the end of the tape, when Deena heard Tom barking directives, she was overcome by a bittersweet feeling: Glad to hear him again, yet deeply saddened that it would be the last time.
She knew he had reached the cockpit. He had done his job.
About the Writer
The Bee's Greg Gordon can be reached at (202) 383-0005 or firstname.lastname@example.org