Woman who lost hero-husband to 9-11 finds 'new normal'

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) -- Months after Sept. 11 terrorists took the life of her husband, Tom, and 39 others aboard a United Airlines flight headed for California, Deena Burnett received what was left of his belongings -- a few credit cards, business cards and the interior pocket of his portfolio.

"They smell of jet fuel and smoke. Most of them are burned around the edges, credit cards melted and burned," she says, describing the remnants nearly two years later.

She also has a torn shirt, but she was too afraid to ask investigators if they thought it was the shirt he was wearing that day.

Left with three little girls to raise without him, the 39-year-old daughter of an Arkansas cotton farmer has been handed about all the sadness one person can stand. But oddly enough, she gets through it with her husband's help.

"Even though it's been two years, every day I get up and I do something that has to do with Tom Burnett, either his life or his death," she says.

Of the four planes hijacked that day, the only one that did not reach its suspected target -- the White House or some other symbol of U.S. might -- was the plane that carried Tom Burnett. Flying home to California after a business trip, Burnett was among those credited with leading passengers in a plan to thwart the terrorists.

An athletic, 38-year-old who loved the outdoors and had been the quarterback at his Bloomington, Minn., high school, Burnett had the intelligence and confidence to pull it off, his wife says. In the final conversations she had with him by cell phone, he told her "I'm putting a plan together. ... We're going to do something."

The passengers had been moved to the back of the plane, and Tom told his wife that one of the travelers had been stabbed to death.

"I could hear people talking in the plane," Deena says. "I heard someone ask Tom ....'Are you ready to go?"' Then she heard Tom say, "Yea, if you're going with me, get off the phone."

Deena says her 7-year-old twins, Halley and Madison, and 5-year-old Anna Clare believe their father saved George Bush's house.

"He was an extremely intelligent man. He didn't think the way any average person thinks. He had incredible confidence," she says. "He was very well read, very curious and interested in any subject you could propose. It made him the kind of man that we believed could pilot a plane."

Since the attacks, Deena sometimes feels she is leading someone else's life. She gets calls from the White House and phone messages from celebrities like Oprah Winfrey or Maria Shriver.

Growing up in Halley in one of the poorest counties in Arkansas, her life used to be much simpler. She studied broadcast journalism at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, worked briefly as a news reporter for a radio station in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., and was working as a flight attendant for Delta Airlines when she met Tom in Atlanta.

They fell in love and married in 1992. After she got pregnant with the twins, she stopped working. Two years later, she gave birth to their third child.

Life was good. The Burnetts had a home in San Ramon, Calif. Tom was chief operating officer and senior vice president of Thoratec Corp., a company that specializes in heart pumps, and they were looking forward to their 10th wedding anniversary.

Then came the attacks. In one day, 19 terrorists killed or mortally wounded 3,016 people in New York City, Washington, D.C., and, those from Tom's plane in Shanksville, Pa.

"Emotionally, it seems like it was just a few weeks ago," Deena says. "I guess the easiest way to say it is I just still feel married. I don't have the same thoughts, that the door is going to open and he is going to walk through it. But I still feel married. It can still feel strange to think of him as gone."

After the attacks, Deena and her children moved back to Arkansas to be near her family. She found a comfortable home in a gated community in west Little Rock. It is quiet and secure.

Being in a new house and a new place has helped, she says. Also having children to love and care for has made her happy, and she works hard at following her husband's imperative to "do something."

Deena runs the Tom Burnett Family Foundation, a nonprofit organization that has started bereavement camps for children at Minneapolis; Linden, N.J.; and Stamford, Conn.; and is raising money for leadership programs and college scholarships.

She is a plaintiff in three lawsuits and the lead plaintiff in a $1 trillion lawsuit against Saudi Arabian royal family members and others the suit claims funded the terrorists. She is writing a book she will title "Do Something" that she hopes will inspire others to turn tragedy into a positive force.

As a witness in a criminal case in Germany against alleged members of an al-Qaida cell, she expects to testify next month when the trial begins. She has had numerous public speaking engagements -- about two a week until the school year began.

On the two-year observance of Sept. 11, she intends to speak at Pepperdine University, where Tom received a master's in business administration and where a Heroes Garden was dedicated to his memory. She plans to bring Halley, Madison, and Anna Clare.

The children know their father isn't coming home and they have some sad times, she says. But the family has rallied around them, and Deena has enlisted the help of teachers, pediatricians, a priest and a child psychologist. Her mother and father, long divorced and remarried, live near her.

"Our lives have been as close to normal as they could possibly be. 'New normal' is what you could call it," she says.

"It's not that the pain becomes less or goes away. It's that you learn to put the pain in a special place and live your life around it."


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