SAN RAMON, Calif. — For the nation, the defining moment of 38-year-old Thomas Burnett Jr.'s life came Sept. 11 when he decided to thwart the actions of United Airlines Flight 93. But for Burnett it came on April 25, 1992, when he started his own family.
A press statement released by Tom's sisters after his death stated that “the most important thing in Tom's life was his family.” Indeed, not only was Burnett able to spend time with his parents the weekend before his death, but his family also played a role in his presence on Flight 93, bound from Newark to San Francisco.
Originally scheduled for a later flight, Burnett booked an earlier flight in order to get back home to his wife and three daughters — twin 5-year-olds a 3-year old. Burnett spoke by phone with his wife four times before the plane went down. Much of what is known about the plane's last moments is a result of those calls.
The story of Burnett's life from his birth to that final struggle is the story of a man of faith, a daily Mass-goer, who, say friends and family, would never go down without a fight.
His mother, Beverly, said Tom Burnett's very survival as a baby was a miracle. The family had suffered previous miscarriages and Tom was born prematurely on May 29, 1963. At his memorial service his older sister, Martha, said that “his feet were no bigger than a thumb. For the first month our mother had to feed him every hour and squeeze his cheeks to get him to take a bottle.”
As a boy, he had a brave spirit and a sense of humor, recalled Msgr. Joseph Slepicka, a longtime family friend. “When Tommy was about 8 or 9 years old, his father, Tom Sr., and I took him on his first pheasant hunting trip,” he said. “During our trips I would say Mass every day. I remember on this occasion we were saying Mass in the home of one of the hunting party members after a successful day of hunting. During the sign of peace, Tommy leaned over, grabbed the paw of the owner's golden retriever and shook it.”
He also had a strong faith. “Tom always took his faith seriously,” said Msgr. Slepicka. “He had a love for the Thomases — Thomas Aquinas, Thomas á Kempis and Thomas Merton.”
Msgr. Slepicka added that he would always say Aquinas’ Prayer Before a Crucifix after Mass. That prayer ended up on a prayer card at Burnett's memorial Mass.
Burnett's college roommate, Vince Fahnlander, recalled that he was a natural leader. “People liked him and gravitated toward him,” said Fahnlander. Burnett was a backup quarterback for St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn.
When it came time to get married, Burnett took the step very seriously. “Tom was a deliberate decision maker,” said Msgr. Slepicka, who presided over the marriage of Tom and Deena. “He went through a rigorous process in deciding whether or not he should get married.”
“At the time they met, Tom was flying a lot and Deena was a stewardess with Delta Airlines,” added the priest. “After they were married and started having children, Deena stopped working. She later went through RCIA and became Catholic.”
His character served him well in the business world. Burnett first met co-worker and friend Keith Grossman 12 years ago at McGaw Laboratories. When Grossman began work in 1996 for Thoratec, a medical-equipment manufacturer headquartered in Pleasanton, Calif., he immediately began asking Burnett to work there, too. Later that year, Burnett joined Thoratec where he served as senior vice president and chief operating officer.
“Tom could have been successful at whatever he chose to do,” said Grossman.
Msgr. Slepicka thinks he knows one reason why. “Whether he wanted to accomplish something in business or had other needs, he would ask for prayers,” said the priest. “Earlier this year, he called and asked if I would pray for Madison, one of his twin daughters. She had been diagnosed with a debilitating disease. As it turned out, an error had been made in the testing and his daughter was fine.”
Msgr. Slepicka wasn't the only one Burnett turned to for prayers. In a family statement, Burnett's sisters said, “Our brother often called upon the prayers of the Poor Clare sisters to pray for his family and was grateful for their vocation of prayer.”
His faith was the center of his life. At the memorial service, his wife, Deena, told friends that Tom had been attending daily Mass for years.
On Sept. 11, “when the family learned what was happening, the first thing they did was call me,” said Msgr. Slepicka. “They said, ‘Tommy's in trouble. He's on one of the hijacked planes. Could you pray for him?’”
Tom Burnett was devoted to his family. “I am a lucky man,” Tom reportedly told a friend once. “I love Deena. She is a great companion, a faithful Christian, a wonderful mother, and she can shoot a .30-06” caliber rifle.
Keith Grossman, his friend and business partner, said Burnett changed his life for his family. “Once they began having children he really gave up some of the things he liked to do, like golf,” he said. “He didn't want to spend the time” away from the family.
Asked what she will tell her daughters about their father, Deena said, “I'll tell them that he loved them and that he wanted them even before they were ever born.”
Those who knew him have not been surprised to learn that Burnett decided to do something about the hijacking of Flight 93. “When I heard that he had probably acted out against the hijackers it didn't surprise me at all,” said college roommate Fahnlander. “He was very patriotic.”
All agreed that, faced with the possibility of his plane being used as a missile, Burnett would not have been content to simply sit back.
“He was always a challenger,” said Msgr. Slepicka. “If we caught a fish, he would catch a bigger one. If we shot a moose, he'd shoot a bigger one. He was a man of action. That was the kind of person he was.”
In his first call to his wife, Tom explained that the plane had been hijacked by men claiming to have a bomb and that a passenger had been stabbed. He urged Deena to call the authorities and hung up. After Deena contacted the FBI, Tom called a second time.
After discovering the World Trade Center attacks, this time Tom inquired whether the planes that had crashed into the towers had been passenger planes. During a third call, Deena explained that another plane had crashed into the Pentagon. Tom asked her further questions trying to sort out what was happening and hung up.
What Deena didn't know at the time was that Tom and at least four other passengers were hatching a plan to thwart the hijackers.
Fifteen seconds later, Tom made what would be his final call.
During that call, Tom told Deena that a group of them were going to do something. Deena urged him not to, but Tom insisted, “No, we've got to do something.” He told Deena he loved her and hung up. It was the last time Deena would hear from Tom. The plane crashed in rural southwestern Pennsylvania with 45 people on board, leaving Deena with the difficult job of telling her children.
Deena told NBC, “I sat them on the bed and told them their Dad was not coming home.” She explained that bad people did something to the airplane to make it crash and that all the people in the airplane died.
When they asked where he was, Deena told them he was in heaven. Their 3-year-old asked, “Why does he want to be with Jesus instead of us?”
Deena later told their priest, Father Frank Colacicco of St. Isidore's Catholic Church in Danville, Calif., what may have motivated Tom to do what he did.
“He always believed that God gave us the choice for evil or good — that was his philosophy of life,” said Deena. “He figured that these people were doing evil instead of good, and he decided to do something about it.”
Tom Burnett's own words might also offer a clue to his motivation. During a recent merger with another medical company, Burnett spoke to the employees of the merging health-care company.
“The struggle … to preserve life enriches all of us and our humanity is fortified by the process. To deem life important and to act affects all of those who bear witness to it,” he said in his speech. “What we accomplish in life — our pursuits, our passions — echo in posterity through our children, our neighbors and ultimately in our souls.”
Tim Drake is the editor of www.Catholic.net, another publication of Circle Media.