|The voice of the
Flight 93, fight
to hear tape transformed her life
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
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,
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
Last month the FBI scheduled the
tape-playing session at a Marriott hotel
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
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
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
"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
"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,"
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
-- 6:34 a.m., from Tom Burnett's second
During the Burnetts' 10-year marriage, Tom
Burnett was very concerned about his
wife's security because he traveled so
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
-- 6:54 a.m., Tom Burnett's last call
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