'We're Going to Do Something' – Remembering Thomas Burnett, Jr.

The Tri-Valley businessman and father of three was just another one of our neighbors when fate put him on one of the four planes hijacked on 9/11. Patch remembers the local man who was among a group of passengers who refused to die without a fight.

We watched from afar, 3,000 miles away, as planes fell from the skies in New York, Washington, D.C. and a Pennsylvania field.

But as we near the 10th anniversary of those attacks, we can take pride in a tiny piece of hope folded into this horrific history – his name is Thomas Burnett, Jr.

You can see that name emblazoned on a plaque in San Ramon's Memorial Park, on the Fostoria Way overpass and a street sign outside his workplace, Thoratec, in Pleasanton.

His widow Deena Burnett Bailey and even penned a book about the 38-year-old United Flight 93 passenger-turned citizen-hero.

Burnett and a few others on the San Francisco-bound flight thwarted hijackers who originally planned to crash the plane into the White House. With Burnett's help, the plane hurtled instead into a rural Pennsylvania field.

In death, .

On the decade anniversary of his death in those Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, his widow says Burnett's legacy burns even brighter but comes with fresh grief at the thought of how long ago it was when she last heard his voice.

Who was Thomas Burnett, Jr.?

Burnett expected to die young – and prepared for it.

He and his wife talked about it all the time, she said. They armed themselves with life insurance and decided that if anything happened, Deena should re-marry and move back home to Arkansas.

“Tom just felt he was going to be part of something bigger than himself,” Deena said. “He sensed a big change coming.”

That sense of intendment stemmed from his deep religious convictions, his wife said. The two lived in San Ramon at the time and attended St. Isidore's Catholic Church in Danville.

"He was always a leader and approached everything in life head-on," said Deena over the phone from her home in Little Rock, Ark. "He was never really discouraged … he always believed that he could do anything. And quite frankly, he could. In the last year-and-a-half or two years of his life, he became more filled with faith … and believed that he was going to be part of something that was going to impact a great number of people."

Though it intensified during those couple years before his death, Burnett lived his life full of purpose.

A born leader

Burnett was born and raised in Bloomington, Minn. His birth in itself was a miracle, his family told the Catholic Association.

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."

His parents say that even in birth, Burnett proved himself a fighter.

As a young kid, Burnett was magnetic and charismatic, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

Articulate and competitive, a motivator who could talk a person into almost anything, Burnett was a born salesman. While he couldn't talk his mother into letting him fish from the edge of a dock as a 3-year-old, he did persuade her to let him sit in the middle of it and drop his line through the cracks.

In his hometown of Bloomington in 1980, he quarterbacked a high school team with a modicum of talent to the state championship game.

Friends describe Burnett as all-American, a patriot, a student of military and early U.S. history. He admired the Founding Fathers. After graduating from the University of Minnesota in 1985 and landing his job at Thoratec, he decorated his office with busts of Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln.

He aspired to be a good citizen, professional and family man.

In 1989, Burnett met his wife-to-be, Deena. The couple went to Applebee's for their first dinner-date, where they passed six hours in conversation.

The pair married three years later, each of them still busy with their respective careers, spending a lot of time flying across the country. Deena would leave little love letters for her husband on planes, they'd meet up in airports and rarely had more than the weekends to themselves.

In 1995, Deena became pregnant with the twins, so she stopped flying.

"At that point, Tom and I knew it was time for me to stay home," Deena said. "And he was ready for that, he wanted nothing more than to provide a good life for us."

Family first

Burnett settled with his new family in San Ramon after securing a job as a high-ranking executive at Thoratec. He worked his way up in the business world to provide a comfortable life for Deena and his young daughters, twins Madison and Halley and Anna-Claire, 5 and 3 years old at the time of their father's death.

But the calm came with a strange restlessness. They both felt it, Deena said.

"He and I both had been feeling that one of us, and probably him, was going to die … and we started making preparations for that," Deena said. "We didn’t really know why we felt that way, we couldn’t explain it. Looking back, I can see it’s the grace of God preparing us for something that was going to occur."

Burnett told his wife that if he died, she should move back to her hometown in Arkansas and re-marry. He wanted his daughters to grow up in a home with a father, close to family and in a place where their mother could heal in peace.

'We're going to do something'

Burnett took an early flight from a business trip in New York to see his family sooner.

He sat with 40 other passengers on the United 93 – the one that would have struck the White House if it weren't for Burnett and those other passengers now hailed as heroes.

It was 6:27 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. Deena, who was in the middle of preparing breakfast for her kids, answered her cell phone. It was her husband calling from one of those phones on the back of plane seats, according to a profile on Deena in the September issue of Diablo Magazine.

The transcript of his four calls from that flight are available at www.tomburnettfamilyfoundation.org:

  • Deena: Hello
  • Tom: Deena
  • Deena: Tom, are you OK?
  • Tom: No, I’m not. I’m on an airplane that has been hijacked.
  • Deena: Hijacked?
  • Tom: Yes, They just knifed a guy.
  • Deena: A passenger?
  • Tom: Yes.
  • 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, they are telling us there is a bomb on board, please call the authorities.

Deena called 911. Within minutes, firefighters and police showed up. The FBI arrived soon after. So did neighbors, who sat with Deena during the next hour for Burnett's next few calls.

Deena begged him to stay put and not call attention to himself. But Burnett already hatched a plan with a few other passengers to overtake the hijackers.

"Tom, they are hijacking planes all up and down the east coast," Deena told her husband. "They are taking them and hitting designated targets. They’ve already hit both towers of the World Trade Center."

"They’re talking about crashing this plane," Burnett said to the passengers around him. "Oh my God. It’s a suicide mission…"

Burnett spent a few more minutes over a couple more calls asking for more details about the attacks. Then he asked about Deena and the kids and said a final "I love you."

Then, he reassured her, "Don't worry, we're going to do something" and hung up.

A legacy to uphold

The rest is a tragic moment in history. And a life-changing event for the Burnett family.

On the anniversary of 9/11 this Sunday, Deena and her now-high school-aged daughters will be at Pepperdine University, where Burnett earned a master's degree in business.

The school planted a rose garden in Burnett's honor in the years after his death. Deena asked her children how they wanted to commemorate their father's memory this year and they chose to accept the invitation from his alma mater.

Ten years is psychologically significant, for whatever reason, so more people will likely take the time this year to remember those 3,000-plus who died in the 2001 terrorist attacks, Deena noted.

This is also the first 9/11 anniversary after , which for Deena brought some measure of closure and relief.

"My guess is that future anniversaries will not bring as much attention as this will," said Deena, who has since remarried. "We probably won’t hear as much about it until the 20th anniversary at this point. So you know … that brings a little bit of sadness."

It's a different type of sadness than the blunt force of sudden loss she felt years ago, she said.

"It’s a time for reflection," Deena said. "I’m thinking back on is how far we’ve come in 10 years as a family. The girls have lived more than half their life now without him. Those are things that make me sad now as opposed to 10 years ago when it was the initial shock and loss of losing him. Being 10 years out, it's comforting knowing that the family and friends and faith brought us this far, and thankful that we have all three."

Janice P Ellis September 11, 2011 at 06:34 PM
9/11 changed so many things, for so many people, in so many different ways. For me, like millions of others, the many horrifying images of 9/11 are so seared into my memory, they have just become part of who I am. I wish there was something someone could have done to have prevented that day. But, life has many, many more questions than there are answers.
creekgal September 11, 2011 at 07:18 PM
The bravery & courage of Tom, and those like him inspires me so much it hurts.
Dan Taylor September 13, 2011 at 05:16 AM
My ex and I worked with Tom at Thoratec before the Pleasanton facility was built. His office was across a narrow hallway from my bosses at the time and quarters were cramped, so we all saw a lot of each other every day. When she and I got engaged, he asked where I got her ring because he planned on getting something for his wife, Deena. He was always clever, witty, extremely intelligent, yet very down-to-earth and easy to approach. We learned about his death in the early evening after the shock of the day had subsided just a bit. It was a deeper and more personal blow, and surreal right up to his memorial. I couldn't get inside the church because it was packed with mourners and well-wishers, so my wife went inside and shared her experiences with me. That was one of the most influential deaths for me at that point because of our similarities (I was a year older, with two children), and because of the symbolic significance of Tom's death and the way it happened. I still think about him every time I drive by my old company. He was a good man before he was a hero.
Roxanne Houghton December 07, 2011 at 02:36 PM
Wow what a special man .I didnt know you but i will always rememeber you! we will never forget! my son was born on 9/11 and is very special. he has created new life on such a tragic day


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