The following article was originally published by Michael H. Brown at Spirit Daily in 2004. It is being republished here today to mark the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The widow of Flight 93 hero Thomas Burnett says her husband was a devout Catholic who had premonitions of the fate that met him and 44 others on the fateful day of September 11, 2001 — including a hunch his life would not be a long one and that his mission in life would somehow involve the White House.
It is now widely believed the hijacked plane, which crashed into a rural part of western Pennsylvania, was aimed at the White House, the CIA, or the U.S. Capitol before passengers led by Burnett overpowered the al Qaeda operatives.
According to wife Deena, Burnett was a strong believer who had come back to the Church after straying in his youthful years — rebounding to the extent of attending daily Mass at the end of his abbreviated life. “He had been given a strong faith through his parents,” wife Deena told Spirit Daily. “As an adult, in his teen years and early college, he kind of got away from the Church, and ended up going to St. John’s University in Minnesota. Tom was very intellectual, enjoyed the discourse with monks, had a lot of questions, and I think the monks provided a great insight into the faith he had grown up with and somehow had been missing.”
When he came back to the Church, says Deena, her husband developed a devotion to the Rosary. “I’ve often thought about the prayers he must have said on that airplane, and I think that he was praying to the Virgin Mary,” she says. “I think that his last prayer would have been a Hail Mary.”
Deena, who converted from the Baptist faith to Catholicism after marrying Tom in 1992, says he wasn’t the type to push his beliefs on others, but did speak of his faith anytime he had an opportunity — whether it was someone talking about divorce or abortion or anything he felt strongly about. “He would often bring up his faith in God and never shied away from conversations about it,” says Deena of the 38-year-old California executive — who had three daughters, two of them five-year-old twins when he met his fate.
After their marriage, says Deena, her husband became increasingly interested in the Blessed Mother, buying books about the Rosary and expressing a desire to visit shrines in Europe. “He was very interested in traveling to those places,” says Deena. “He had some kind of meeting in France coming up, and he was trying to talk his dad into going with him so that they could visit Lourdes.”
Tom was working as chief operating officer of a medical devices company, Thoratec Corporation, at the time it happened.
Deena says that before September 11, both she and Tom had forebodings. “After our third daughter was born, I always had this feeling that Tom was not going to live long enough to raise our children, but I never talked to him about this,” she told us. “I shared that thought with my mom right after our third daughter was born. She came into the hospital room and she said, ‘Deena, I guess you’ll have to have another child so Tom can have his son,’ and I said, ‘No, mom, God’s not going to give us a son.’ She said, ‘Why?’ and I said, ‘Because God knows that Tom won’t be here to raise the children and I couldn’t raise Tom’s son alone.'”
That was the first premonition. “My mother asked me what I was talking about. I don’t know why I said that, but I remember feeling an incredible sense of peace, that whatever happened, everything was going to be okay. It was the week of February 24, 1998, and I also told her then that he was going to be killed in a plane crash. It just came out of my mouth without any thought, and I didn’t even think of it after I said it. It was something I was very much at peace with. It was God’s plan, preparing me,” she adds, her voice cracking.
About that time — 1998 — Tom had stopped coming home for lunch. In December he told her that the reason he wasn’t home was that he was now attending daily Mass. “I was a little bit surprised, but I didn’t say anything,” says Deena. “He said, ‘I feel like God is calling me to do something, and I don’t know what it is. But I know it’s going to have a great impact on a lot of people.’ He said, ‘The reason I’ve been going to daily Mass is because I feel like if I can be closer to God, then I’ll know what His plan is for me.'”
Deena recalls from then on she and her husband spent “a great deal of time” talking about what that plan might be. “He wasn’t sure,” she told Spirit Daily. “But to say he was intuitive is an understatement, and I knew if he felt something was going to happen, I better listen to it and trust him. One of the things we brainstormed about was that he thought it had something to do with the White House.”
Because Burnett was an outgoing, charismatic man, who was thinking of retiring early from what was already a highly successful career, he and Deena thought perhaps the premonition was that he should go into politics. People had always told him to. “That seemed like the avenue that God was calling him for,” Deena says. “But something about that didn’t feel right, so he continued praying and we continued with our conversations from time to time about what he thought God’s plan was. And about a year before he was killed, Tom came to me and said, ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I have a feeling that you have always thought I was going to die young.’ I was surprised because I never talked to him about it. I asked him why he thought that and he said, ‘I don’t know, but it may have something to do with God’s plan for me. I’m not sure why I think that. But I need you to tell me what you think.’ I just shared with him. I said, ‘Well, I just always believed that we were not going to grow old together, that something was going to happen to prevent us from growing old together. One of us is going to be killed.’
“He took me seriously,” says Deena. “It was a serious conversation. We knew that we had to be prepared. He went out the next day and tried to double the life insurance on both of us. This was the September before. He was able to double mine but not his because he had been diagnosed with sleep apnea earlier that year. Long story short: we just proceeded with living our lives and dreaming our dreams and working toward our goals, but having an over-riding fear that something was going to happen to one of us. My feeling was that it was going to be Tom, and Tom’s feeling was that it was going to be him. He just felt that whatever God’s plan was for him, it had something to do with the White House and was going to impact a lot of people.”
Then came September 11. Burnett had been on a business trip to New York City. On his return he found himself in the first-class section — surrounded, it turned out, by Islamic terrorists. He made several calls to Deena as the hijacking progressed. About 45 minutes into the flight, he called Deena and when she asked if he was okay, Burnett said, “No, I’m not. I’m on an airplane that has been hijacked.”
It was just a couple minutes before that the four terrorists had burst into the cockpit and apparently killed the crew. They also knifed a passenger and herded the rest to the back of the plane — where Burnett and others formulated their famous plan to overtake the hijackers before the plane could reach its presumed target: Washington. Her heart pounding, Deena contacted the police and FBI to let them know what was happening. When Tom next called, he said the knifed passenger was dead. Deena told him about the other hijacked planes — and how two had hit the World Trade Center. “Oh my God, it’s a suicide mission,” she heard him tell his seatmate as Deena filled him in on what little else was known.
It was at this point that Tom noticed the plane turning back east. At first he thought his plane too was headed for New York. But then he realized it was going south. “We’re over a rural area,” he told his wife. “It’s fields. I’ve gotta go.”
He was a take-charge kind of guy, a 6’2″ former football star in high school back in Bloomington, Minnesota, and Deena immediately knew that he was going to try stopping the hijackers. This was confirmed the next time he called from his cell phone. “They’re talking about crashing this plane into the ground,” said Thomas. “We have to do something. I’m putting a plan together.” The last time he phoned Tom said they were waiting until they were over a rural area. “We’re going to take back the plane,” he said. “We can’t wait for the authorities. I don’t know what they could do anyway. It’s up to us. I think we can do it.”
“What do you want me to do?” Deena had asked.
“Pray, Denna,” said Tom. “Just pray.”
And that she did. “The two of us were calm — eerily calm. I knew that no matter what happened, that everything was going to be okay. I remember after hanging up the phone after each conversation with him just saying the same prayer. I asked God to hold him in the palms of His Hands. I prayed for strength for all of us, and the endurance to do God’s Will.”
Deena says that when she and other relatives listened to the flight’s “black box” (the cockpit recorder), she could hear her husband barking directives as they indeed took the plane back. “I know that he motivated those people aboard that flight to do what they did,” says Deena. “And I also know that had he not been on the plane, that circumstances would have been very different today.”
And so it was that Tom, along with several other burly, athletic passengers, stopped the plane from causing an even greater, monumental national tragedy. His attitude was always everyone else first, me last, “and he really lived his life this way,” his wife says.
As for Deena, who moved back to Little Rock, Arkansas, where she attends Christ the King Church, she harbors no hatred toward Osama bin Laden, but she wants to see al Qaeda stopped.
The tragedy, she says, “strengthened my faith in God. I found that I was more dependent on it — it was the only comfort that I could find. It’s being able to pray and feel as if I’m in the Presence of God.”