April 21, 2002, San Francisco Chronicle, Flight 93, fight to hear tape transformed her life, by Susan Sward,
The voice of the survivors
Flight 93, fight to hear tape transformed her life
(04-21) 04:00 PDT Shanksville, Pa. -- On a wind-whipped hill, Deena Burnett gazed across the fields to the mound of brown earth marking the spot where her husband, Tom, and 43 others died on Sept. 11 in the crash of hijacked United Flight 93.
Gone is the debris from the aircraft that was once scattered over the area. Under the leaden skies, all that remains is the small hill of earth in a landscape dotted with farmhouses and churches.
Burnett, who traveled to the place yesterday for the first time, said viewing the mound underscored with a terrible finality the fact that she would never see her husband again.
"The moment I knew I was in the presence of where the plane went down -- I felt it," Burnett said, weeping softly. "I saw the woods. I knew these woods were a place Tom would have loved to be. . . . This is where his body lies."
Burnett's pilgrimage to southwestern Pennsylvania came two days after she and scores of other relatives of the Flight 93 victims converged on a hotel in Princeton, N.J., for an unprecedented, FBI-conducted session where family members were allowed to hear the final 30 minutes of tapes from the flight's cockpit recorder.
At a visitor center a half-mile from the crash site, Burnett stood by her husband's parents and sisters yesterday while a family friend, Monsignor Joseph Slepicka, celebrated a Mass in memory of the man he knew as Tommy.
"The Gospel says, 'Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends,' " said Slepicka, noting this was what passengers aboard Flight 93 had done.
For Deena Burnett, the trip to this Pennsylvania field was part of an impassioned quest to find a way to make the world a better place.
Back on the morning of the crash, a San Ramon police officer had come to her house, after local authorities learned her husband was on the plane. Full of dread, Burnett darted upstairs to take a brief shower. When she came back downstairs, where the officer had been watching the television news, he told her, "I am afraid I have some bad news for you.' "
When he told her he thought Flight 93 had crashed, she collapsed on a couch.
On that day, Burnett's life changed forever: Tom Burnett, whom she'd known from their second date was the man she wanted to spend the rest of her life with, was dead.
Almost overnight, Burnett, a former Delta Airlines flight attendant and suburban mother of three small daughters, became one of the most forceful family members of Flight 93 victims to plead with the FBI for an opportunity to hear the tape.
Burnett, the daughter of an Arkansas cotton farmer, had a grit behind her soft voice and courteous manner, and she wanted to hear for herself. Two weeks after the crash, Flight 93 victims' families met with President Bush at the White House.
Bush spoke with Burnett and kissed her on both cheeks. She didn't waste her opportunity, telling the president she would like to hear the tape. The president said he could understand why she felt that way.
Last month the FBI scheduled the tape-playing session at a Marriott hotel in Princeton.
As the months passed, Burnett exuded the stoic, almost serene presence of a woman who now had a mission -- to wrest something worthwhile out of the plane's wreckage strewn over the Pennsylvania countryside.
It had all begun on the morning of Sept. 11, when her husband called her four times on his cell phone from aboard the hijacked Newark-to-San Francisco flight. She scribbled down notes and later made a transcript that she always carries with her.
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, and they are telling us there is a bomb on board. Please call the authorities.
-- 6:27 a.m., Sept. 11, 2001, from Burnett's transcript of her husband's first cell phone call to her that day
Burnett's cross-country trip to hear the cockpit tapes started Wednesday morning before the first gray light filled the Contra Costa County sky.
During the night, her twins -- 5-year-olds Halley and Madison -- and 4-year- old Anna Clare had clambered into Burnett's bed one by one, seeking reassurance.
Before leaving the girls behind in her mother's care, Burnett gave them "triple hugs and kisses."
Once on board the Philadelphia-bound United Flight 90, Burnett recounted how fundamentally her life had been transformed.
"My first response was I had been cast into a role I was not prepared to play," she told The Chronicle. "Some days I still feel that way, but I am becoming accustomed to the idea that this happened for a reason."
Before the crash of Flight 93, Burnett said her life was a day-to-day routine of grocery shopping, trips to the cleaner's, volunteer work at Saint Isidore's Catholic Church in Danville, hikes and other outings with the family,
homework and play dates with her girls. . Tom Burnett, who had grown up going on fishing and hunting trips with his father in Minnesota, particularly enjoyed those hikes.
"I was an everyday housewife -- a stay-at-home mom with three kids," Burnett said of her life in her peach-colored, two-story home, with its tastefully upholstered furniture and and thick beige carpet.
"It has struck me my life was normal, if not boring, on Sept. 10, and it is now so far from what it was then," Burnett said.
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.
-- 6:34 a.m., from Tom Burnett's second call
During the Burnetts' 10-year marriage, Tom Burnett was very concerned about his wife's security because he traveled so much.
Five years ago, he went to work for a medical device company based in Pleasanton and the couple bought a new home in a gated community with immaculate streets lined with rows of similar tile-roofed homes.
This setting gave them some comfort, but Tom Burnett -- a former Bloomington, Minn., star high school quarterback and president of his University of Minnesota fraternity -- wanted more.
"Tom was the kind of guy who prepared for every situation," Deena Burnett recalled. He would put her through drills, saying, "OK, I am traveling and you are upstairs. You hear the front door open and someone is coming up the stairs.
What do you do?"
Deena Burnett said she told her husband she'd scream and he said, "OK, but make sure the window is open first so the neighbors can hear you."
It wasn't that he thought she couldn't handle anything, she said. He just wanted to make sure she'd thought of every eventuality.
Now, living with an eventuality neither could have foreseen, Deena Burnett waited to hear the cockpit tape.
When that day finally arrived Thursday, it was swelteringly hot and muggy in Princeton.
Wearing a pin of the U.S. flag on the lapel of her starched blue cotton dress, Burnett sat with her husband's parents, Thomas Burnett Sr., 72, and Beverly Burnett, 71, and his two sisters, Martha Burnett O'Brien, 46, and Mary Jurgens, 33, among rows of relatives facing a large screen in the ballroom at the Princeton Marriott Forrestal Village.
When she first heard the passengers' violent struggle with the four terrorists, she said, she cried so hard it made it difficult for her to listen for voices. When she heard the tape a second time, she distinctly heard her husband's voice among those giving instructions to other passengers on a planned revolt. "It was a beautiful gift" to hear his voice, she said.
In front of a battery of cameras and microphones outside the hotel, Burnett told reporters that she found peace from the tape. But later that night alone in her Manhattan hotel room, she cried.
"I didn't expect those sounds on the tape to be howling or haunting, but they were," she said. "The sounds were producing visual images, and I realized the horror of what they went through."
The next morning, though, Burnett got up at 4:30 a.m. and gave interviews to seven network morning television shows in Manhattan. Then she visited the World Trade Center site with her husband's family and gazed down on the spot where 2,843 people died when the twin towers collapsed after being hit by two terrorist jets.
Looking at the rubble, she thought of how her husband and the others aboard Flight 93 averted a similar loss of life by thwarting the four terrorists aboard their aircraft.
After the visit to the Shanksville crash site yesterday, Burnett was returning home to her daughters today. The months ahead will bring more change.
In June, Burnett will move with her mother, Sandra, and her daughters to Little Rock, Ark., where most of her family lives. Burnett, who has an undergraduate degree in communications from Northeast Louisiana University, says at some point she will go to work again -- maybe in speech pathology so she can help other people and still have time with her daughters.
As the days go by, she says she is learning that she now carries a responsibility which she said "is to make something positive come from the events of Sept. 11 -- to help inspire those who will listen to live a life worthy of those who died for our freedom."
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.
-- 6:45 a.m., from Tom Burnett's third call
Before her husband's death, Burnett said, she had read of the world's wars.
"But I never gave much thought to the men and women who died in wars -- I never felt the weight of their loss until now," she said. "That's where the responsibility lies -- in recognition of the hundreds and thousands of people who have died in similar circumstances and what we owe them for the sacrifice they made for future generations."
Since soon after Sept. 11, a U.S. flag has hung by her garage, and a sign pasted in a window echoes her husband's comment in their last phone call about passengers' plans to retake Flight 93: "We're going to do something."
In her daily life, one of the hardest times is when pieces of mail arrive addressed to Tom Burnett -- especially the National Review, with its conservative commentary on politics, news and culture, and also the magazines about hunting, a sport he loved to do with his father, a retired high school English teacher in Northfield, Minn.
"I dread going to the mailbox now, but I haven't the heart to cancel those magazines," she said. "It is just one of those little things that makes this all very real."
The other day, though, she was amazed to receive a certificate signed by Bush, something she said was usually only given to the family of someone killed in military combat.
The certificate stated that the United States honored her husband and that the document was "awarded by a grateful nation in recognition of devoted and selfless consecration to the service of our country in the Armed Forces of the United States."
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.
-- 6:54 a.m., Tom Burnett's last call
E-mail Susan Sward at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle