‘A group of us are going to do something,’ passenger tells wife
SAN RAMON, Calif. (AP) – Thomas Burnett Jr. called his wife four times from hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 – the last time minutes before the plane crashed in an open field – to tell her that he and other passengers were ”going to do something.”
He didn’t say goodbye.
”He was coming home. He wasn’t leaving. He was going to solve this problem and come back to us,” his widow, Deena Burnett said Wednesday.
Authorities weren’t saying much about what happened aboard Flight 93. But it was the only one of four jetliners hijacked by terrorists Tuesday that went down without hurting anyone on the ground.
His wife is sure that Thomas Burnett had something to do with that.
”We may never know exactly how many helped him or exactly what they did, but I have no doubt that airplane was bound for some landmark and that whatever Tom did and whatever the guys who helped him did they saved many more lives. And I’m so proud of him and so grateful,” she said, breaking off to choke back a sob.
Like many others, Deena Burnett got up Tuesday morning, turned on the television and was transfixed by images of jetliners flying into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, bringing the buildings down in arching plumes of smoke.
She began to wonder about her husband, due to fly into San Francisco from the East Coast. It turns out Burnett had been booked on a later flight, but took Flight 93 presumably because he got to the airport early. As she watched television, Deena Burnett got a call from her mother-in-law – Had she heard from him?
Then a second call came in – her husband on his cell phone.
”He said, ‘Deena.’ And I said, ‘Are you OK?’ And he said, ‘No.’ And I knew then that he was right in the middle of it.”
Deena Burnett started shaking. But she was steadied by her husband’s calm demeanor.
”He said, ‘I’m on the airplane, the airplane that’s been hijacked and they’ve already knifed a guy. They’re saying they have a bomb. Please call the authorities.”’
He hung up and Deena, after a momentary pause – ”Who do you call for a hijacking?” – called 911, who patched her through to the FBI.
She was on the phone with agents when the second call came.
”I told him in the second call about the World Trade Center and he was very curious about that and started asking questions. He wanted any information that I had to help him,” she said, interviewed in her living room on a quiet cul-de-sac in San Ramon, a San Francisco suburb.
Burnett asked his wife, a former flight attendant, if a bomb could have been smuggled aboard, although he made it clear he didn’t believe the terrorists’ claims they’d achieved such a thing.
By the third phone call, ”I could tell that he was formulating a plan and trying to figure out what to do next,” she said. ”You could tell that he was gathering information and trying to put the puzzle together.”
In the fourth call, Burnett told his wife that he and some other passengers had decided to make a move. ”I told him to please sit down and not draw attention to himself and he said no. He said no,” shaking her head with a half-smile.
Another passenger who decided to make a move may have been Jeremy Glick, 31, who also called his wife. She conferenced the call to a 911 dispatcher, according to Glick’s uncle, Tom Crowley.
”Jeremy and the people around them found out about the flights into the World Trade Center and decided that if their fate was to die, they should fight,” Crowley said while driving to New York to be with his niece.
In the Burnett household, the morning routine progressed throughout the calls. Mrs. Burnett made breakfast for the couple’s three daughters, two 5-year-old twins and a 3-year-old. Holding the phone in one hand she, ”shooed them upstairs to get dressed and make their beds. It was a very normal morning.”
A friend took the children to school, and Mrs. Burnett, joined by local police, settled in front of the television. First came reports that another jetliner had hit the Pentagon. Then, the news that Flight 93 had plowed into a field about 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.
Her knees buckled; she wept.
The Burnetts had been married for nine years. They met in Atlanta, fixed up by Deena Burnett’s roommate.
”He was very witty. He was a great conversationalist. He was good-looking,” she said with a small smile, ”and just fun to be around.”
Burnett was a successful businessman, chief operating officer for Thoratec Corp., a medical research and development company. He also loved the outdoors, especially fishing, and liked to go hunting at a Wisconsin farmhouse the family owned.
Red-eyed but clinging to her composure, Deena Burnett described her husband as the kind of person who would always try to take charge of a situation. She remembers hearing that he pulled someone out of a car wreck in the years before they met, although he apparently never dwelt on the details.
A day after, it was hard to believe he was really gone.
”Part of my brain knows that he’s gone, but when I got the ironing out to do I was ironing his clothes … and realized he wasn’t going to be wearing them,” she said.
The same disconnect holds true for the children.
Deena Burnett told them ”that there were bad people on the airplane and those bad people caused the airplane to crash.”
They asked if he was in heaven.
”I said, ‘Yes.’ After the tears cleared they asked if they could call him on his cell phone.”
Wednesday, a steady stream of journalists came to knock on the front door of the Burnetts’ pastel-colored home, all wanting to hear the story of the man who may have tried to take a stand against terror.
Burnett would ”absolutely laugh to hear himself called a hero because he was trying to get home to his family. I know that,” Deena Burnett said.
But to his wife, he was and is.
”I have always been so proud of my husband – he’s a really, truly wonderful man,” she said. ”This is just a very small glimpse of who he really was.”