Southern Woman Reflects on Her Part in History
Deena Burnett Bailey’s conversations with husband Tom on the morning of September 11, 2001, helped spark the passenger revolt that saved countless lives in Washington, D.C.
Words by Rachel Burchfield
It’s the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, in San Ramon, California, just outside of San Francisco. It is a big day in the Burnett household: It is three-year-old Anna Clare’s first day of preschool. She and her older twin sisters, Halley and Madison, both five, bound into their mother Deena’s bedroom at 6 a.m., ready for breakfast.
Their father, Tom, is away on a business trip, as he is often these days. Earlier in 2001, Tom’s company, Thoratec Corporation, acquired the HeartMate Left Ventricular Assist System, somewhat of a David and Goliath acquisition that Wall Street went crazy over. On this particular Tuesday morning, Tom—who is senior vice president and COO of the company—is in New York City with Thoratec’s president and CEO, Keith Grossman, to ring the bell at the New York Stock Exchange.
But Tom is tired. He doesn’t want to be on this trip. He has barely spent but a few hours at home with his family in the past three weeks. He talked Keith into ringing the bell by himself and catching an earlier flight out of Newark back home to San Francisco. It’s his youngest’s first day of preschool. Keith obliges, and Tom does indeed get a seat on a relatively empty United flight.
Deena is cooking breakfast for the girls with the television on in the background. It’s about 6:20 a.m. California time—9:20 a.m. in New York City. By now, both the north and south towers of the World Trade Center have been struck by airplanes, at 8:46 a.m. and 9:03 a.m., respectively. Deena, not expecting Tom to be on a plane until later that afternoon, isn’t worried about her husband in the air; she’s worried about him on the ground in New York City at the NYSE.
Then, at 9:28 a.m. EST—6:28 a.m. PST—the very first call from aboard United 93 is made. It’s Tom, calling Deena at home. They speak for 28 seconds.
“He told me he was on United 93, Newark to San Francisco, his plane had been hijacked, they’d already knifed a guy, and were trying to get into the cockpit,” Deena says in an exclusive interview with Good Grit. Tom tried to help the stabbing victim, but he’d lost too much blood. Tom told Deena to call the authorities and hung up the phone.
“I just stood there, frozen, not really able to process what was happening,” Deena says. “I see this is happening on TV, and now it’s happening in my life.”
She couldn’t move. When she tried, she says it felt like a jolt of lightning struck her entire body. Not knowing what else to do, she called 911.
Before Deena was a full-time mother, she was a flight attendant. She had just finished flight attendant school for Delta Airlines and was living in Marietta, Georgia when she met a handsome Minnesotan who had just moved to the area named Tom Burnett. It was July 1989, and Deena and about 20 of her girlfriends had gone out for happy hour when, at the bar, they met Tom. He had just moved to Marietta and was looking for an apartment. The group of girls thought he’d make a good friend. By the end of the night, one of girls had given Tom all of their phone numbers, so that he’d have 20 new friends in town. When Tom did finally find an apartment, he called Deena and said he’d love to have her over; he’d grill something. She, a classy Southern belle, declined, but did agree to meet him at a restaurant. They closed it down, talking all night. Most of their relationship was long distance before getting engaged in October 1991, as Tom’s work—as it always would—took him to different places. They were married in April 1992.
“The first thing you noticed about him was that he was incredibly smart,” Deena says. “He was articulate. Good looking. He was so funny. He had an incredible wit. He was very charismatic, very charming. He’d walk into a room and people would say ‘Who is that and what does he do?’ He’s the kind of guy you’d walk up to and want to meet, to be a part of whatever it was he was doing. Very dynamic. He had a really big presence. It was very, very noticeable when he was in a room.”
Deena says Tom has often been described by people who knew him growing up as being very intense.
He was never more intense than on that morning in September 2001.
After calling 911, Deena was eventually connected with the FBI. She had to explain that no, her husband’s plane was not one of the two that hit the World Trade Center—it was another plane. She could hear the panic in the voice on the other end of the line.
While she was on the phone with the FBI, Tom called again, at 9:37. And in this 62 second phone call, what Deena told Tom likely saved countless lives in Washington, D.C., whether at the Capitol or the White House.
“At that point, I was able to tell him the World Trade Center towers had been hit, and planes were being hijacked up and down the east coast,” Deena says. “He said at that point ‘It’s a suicide mission.’”
The lightbulb went off in his head that, unless he and his fellow passengers fought back, they were not getting off this plane alive. He began asking questions. Who were the hijackers? What did they want? What were they going to do? Deena tried to answer his questions as best she could based off the news reports she was seeing on television. Tom sounded concerned, she says, but was gathering information, passing it along to the people around him, and looking for a solution. He told Deena he was on a 757, and that he thought the hijackers had a gun and a bomb.
“He just said ‘Okay, okay,’” she says. “And then he said, ‘I’ll call you back.’”
While waiting on him to call back, American 77 hit the Pentagon. Before news reporters knew the airline or the flight number, they reported it was a 757.
“I just collapsed into his recliner in our living area,” Deena says. “I just remember hearing myself and it was like an animal wailing, wailing, a sound I’ve never heard myself make. Just uncontrollable sobbing and wailing.”
The girls, still at the breakfast table and clueless as to what was going on, thought their mom was playing a game. They ran over to her laughing and giggling. But, when they saw her crying, tears falling off her face, they started to get upset, climbing in her lap. At that moment, the phone rang again. It was now 9:44.
“Tom, you’re okay!” Deena cried, thinking he had somehow survived the crash.
“No, I’m not,” he said. “But don’t worry. I’m putting a plan together to take back the airplane. We’re going to do something.”
That 54 second call was the last time Deena would ever hear her husband’s voice. Tom told her they were waiting until they were over a rural area to storm the cockpit. Deena told him she had told his family. He told her she shouldn’t have worried them.
“What else can I do?” she pleaded.
“Pray, Deena,” he said. “Just pray.”
“I love you,” she said, choking back tears, holding it together by a thread.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “Everything will be okay.”
Deena told him the girls wanted to talk to him.
“Tell them I’ll talk to them later,” he said. “I’ll be home tonight. I may be late. But I’ll be home.”
Eighteen minutes later, United 93 crashed in rural Pennsylvania. There were no survivors.
Deena truly believes that Tom thought he would be home that night—and that’s why he never said goodbye.
“I’m sure it crossed his mind that this might not go according to plan, but I also know his personality and his character would never allow him to think of defeat, and never allow him to think of failure,” she says. “It would only allow him to think ‘We’re going to do this, and we’re going to succeed.’ That was just who he was. He may think things all the way through, but he’d never let himself accept defeat before trying.”
Some of Tom’s last words—“Everything will be okay”—played over and over again in her mind like a constant loop.
“I can’t tell you how many times over the years random people will come up to me and say things like ‘I don’t know why, but I am feeling compelled to say to you that God loves you and everything will be okay,’” Deena says through tears. Twenty years have not erased the heartache. “People in airports, at the beach, at the playground, in stores, people who had no idea who I was, saying ‘I don’t know you from Adam, but something is telling me to tell you this and I don’t know why.’ They’ll just say it and walk away. It’s like I had a little angel on my shoulder.”
During their last phone call, Deena began to panic. She didn’t want Tom to be a cowboy, taking the plane back by himself. Tom reassured her there was a group of them. Reverting to her flight attendant training, Deena told Tom to please just sit down, be still, be quiet, and not draw attention to himself. He loudly yelled “No!” into the phone.
“If they’re going to drive this plane into the ground, we’re going to do something,” he said.
“It wasn’t a surprise to me [that he said that],” Deena says. “I knew that he wouldn’t go down without a fight.”
For a brief moment, Deena felt relief. She believed her husband when he said it would be okay. Tom was a natural leader; if anyone was able to do this herculean task, he was.
“I was glad he was in charge,” she says. “If anyone was capable of turning this thing around, it was my husband. I knew that.”
All morning, Deena had been running around wearing Tom’s ragged old blue robe, which she always wore whenever he traveled. As news spread of what was happening, people were beginning to fill the Burnetts’ house, so Deena decided to go upstairs and change clothes, still tightly gripping the phone, waiting and praying for Tom’s next call. As she descended the stairs, the policeman assigned to sit with Deena that morning after her 911 call was standing at the bottom of the stairs.
“I could tell by the look on his face that something was wrong,” she says.
She asked, “Is it Tom?” The officer told her there had been another plane crash. Deena’s eyes were drawn to the glaring television screen. At the bottom of the screen flashed a news bulletin: United 93 had crashed. Her knees buckled, and the officer caught her before she hit the floor.
“I remember thinking ‘He’s gone, he’s gone,’” Deena says. “I remember thinking in my head ‘This is what sorrow feels like.’ I felt like my world had ended; my dreams, my hopes, my life was gone. I can remember for several days, for weeks after walking around, breathing, thinking ‘How is it that I’m still breathing? How is it that I’m still walking?’ I felt dead. I felt like a part of me had died. If he’s gone, how can I still be here? He and I were truly one. I just couldn’t fathom continuing to live without him.”
Then, three reasons to live—Halley, Madison, and Anna Clare—walked in the door.
Deena had sent the girls off to school; it was too chaotic in the house that morning for them to stay. After school ended, that friend picked them up and kept them at her house until 5 p.m. Outside the Burnett home, in a sleepy gated community, were news reporters and satellite trucks on the lawn. Neighbors formed a human chain to keep people away from the Burnetts’ front door. The girls and the family friend had to have a police escort to get to the house. Before they knew what had happened to their father, the moment before their innocence was ripped away, the little girls stood in the window, waving at the news reporters, not understanding.
Deena told them that night, asking them if they remembered her talking to daddy on the phone that morning. They said they did and asked where daddy was. Daddy had a problem on the airplane, Deena said. There were bad people on the plane, and they caused the plane to crash. And when it crashed, everyone on board died, including your daddy. Everyone climbed onto the bed. One of the girls said “No! No! No!”
“Can we call daddy on his cell phone?” Madison said.
“No, honey,” Deena said. “They don’t have cell phones in Heaven.”
“Can we write him a letter?”
“No, they don’t have mail there, either.”
“He didn’t say goodbye,” Halley said.
“Honey, he didn’t have time,” Deena said. “He wanted to say goodbye, but he didn’t have time. This is not his choice. He wants to be here with us right now, but he can’t be. You’ll forever have an angel who will watch over you, and every night when you see the stars, it’s daddy hanging those stars for you to enjoy.”
It has been 20 years and two days since that awful night, and Deena still cries at the memory.
Deena didn’t sleep at all that night. She watched the news coverage, and the bizarre feeling of seeing Tom’s name on the screen over and over again. That morning, she turned the television off. I can’t get up. I can’t move, she thought.
“Then I heard my daughters downstairs at the breakfast table,” Deena says. “I had to get up because of them. Everything I’ve done every day since that first morning, I’ve done for them. They kept me going.”
This past weekend, the three girls—who, at 25, 25, and 23, are now young women—went to the United 93 crash site in Pennsylvania for the first time, to mark two decades since they lost their father. Deena herself has only been three times—in April 2002 to collect Tom’s remains, in 2006, and this past weekend.
“I felt like the twentieth anniversary was the time for us to go, and it ended up being a great decision,” Deena says. “The girls are adults, and they were able to hold their own. It ended up being a really nice weekend.”
Deena is a true Southern steel magnolia – beautiful on the outside, but gritty and resilient at her core. It has been her faith, her family, and her community that have propelled her through these past two decades, and Tom’s last two words to her – “Do something” – have been the backbone of her life.
“Those words have played over and over in my mind,” she says. “He left our family a legacy of making a difference, of standing up, speaking out, doing something good, doing something right, doing something beautiful. I took those words, ‘Do something,’ and kept taking it a step forward, asking ‘What else can I do to make a difference?’”
She has volunteered, sat on boards, raised millions of dollars for charity. She started a foundation, and, in 2006, turned it over to the Burnett family. She has found love again and remarried and is living now in her native Arkansas. She has done what she could in his name, as well as inspiring her three daughters to continue his legacy.
“Flight 93 gave a legacy to our nation of doing something for the betterment of our country, to be selfless,” Deena says. “Whether or not we as Americans continue to carry that legacy is up to each individual. But for my family and me, we will continue Tom’s legacy. My kids have been my joy and my purpose, but my inspiration to be able to continue forward has really been Tom’s words and the legacy that he left us.”