'Nothing ordinary about Tom Burnett': Wife of Flight 93 passenger remembers husband-turned-hero

A man steers a fishing boat on a lake.
Tom Burnett steers a fishing boat on a lake.
Courtesy of Deena Burnett-Bailey

Deena Burnett Bailey doesn’t like to visit the place where her late husband, Tom Burnett, died. It dredges up a lot of pain. And there’s usually a lot of people there.

“I don't like the crowd. I don't want to be around them,” she said.

That’s because it’s a national memorial, tucked into the Pennsylvania field where Tom and 39 others on flight 93 perished on Sept. 11, 2001. Their plane crashed there after Burnett and a group of passengers attempted to take the aircraft back from hijackers intent on crashing it in Washington, D.C.

But this year, Burnett Bailey is looking forward to being there. An event at the memorial will mark 20 years since nearly 3,000 people lost their lives in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. And it will mark her and Tom’s daughter’s first trip to the site.

“In the past, I've always felt like they were too young to go,” Burnett Bailey said. “And after they were old enough, they chose not to go. So I think it will be a very interesting trip. I hope that it will be very healing for us.”

A family poses for a photo with holiday decorations
Tom Burnett and Deena Burnett Bailey pose for a photo with their daughters Anna Clare, Halley and Madison.
Courtesy of Deena Burnett Bailey

Burnett Bailey joined MPR News host Tom Crann Friday to remember her late husband. Their conversation is transcribed below. It’s been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Why is it important to remember 9/11 20 years later?

I think it's important to remember what happened on Sept. 11, as well as commemorate the lives that were lost, because it was an attack on our homeland, which most of us have not lived through. It also really gives us an idea of people who were living their everyday life, yet they inspired the world to get up and do something and to make a difference.

Your husband was one of those people living his life on a flight for business. When you think back to that day, what comes back to you first and foremost?

The telephone calls that I had with Tom. They are absolutely embedded in my mind, and the emotions that they invoke: the feeling of being connected with him on that airplane, the hopelessness that I felt in being able to help him and the emotion and the sorrow I felt when I realized that he had died. And yet in what he said and what he didn't say, there was a real sense that he thought he could do something. He was convinced he could stop these hijackers. He said, “Don't worry, we're going to do something.”

Was that in keeping with the man you knew and his character?

Oh, absolutely. I'll say this: They talked about how ordinary people were doing extraordinary things on that day. And I kind of smile when I hear people say that, because there was absolutely nothing ordinary about Tom Burnett. He was confident and he was capable. And when he told me that he was going to do something, that everything would be OK and he was coming home that night, I had no reason to not believe him.

He said he would be home for dinner, right?

He did. He said, “I might be late, but I'll be home.”

He was very adamant in our last phone call that he had put a plan together. There was a group of them. They were going to do something. They were taking back the airplane, and everything would be OK. And I remember telling him that I had called his parents and his sisters and he scolded me. He said, “You shouldn't have worried them.” And I don't think that he ever considered that he would not survive it. I think if he did think that he was going to die, he would have called his parents. He certainly would have said goodbye to me, and he would have wanted to talk to his daughters.

Here you are 20 years later talking to me — and I'm sure other media — about this painful experience that most of us just can't imagine going through. What has it been like to deal with your grief and with the worst day of your life so publicly, year after year?

In the beginning, it was very difficult to tell the story over and over and over. And it was very painful. What I have learned to do, though, is to really think about the difference that he made. And it makes me want to tell people who he was, not just on Sept. 11. What really culminated that day was the life that he led all along. Where it shocks the nation that a young man would stand up and do something, to the rest of us that was normal. And Tom would have seen that as normal. That’s who he was.

Much of the nation came together after 9/11. In our very polarized time, do you see the nation ever coming together again like that?

Minnesota Composer René Clausen discusses piece about 9/11

Well, I think that we came together after 9/11 because it was an attack on our own land, but it was also a personal attack to our lifestyle and what we stand for and who we are as Americans. I kind of equate it to, you know, brothers and sisters can argue. But if someone else comes in and hurts one of them, you know, we all band together, the brothers and sisters do. But you know, I hate to say what it would take for that to happen again. I think that anytime we are as a nation threatened, that is a time that would unify any of us.

Your late husband has been honored here in Minnesota, in his hometown in Bloomington and in a number of ways elsewhere. There's an overpass on an interstate that's been named in his honor. All of that said, how do you want us to remember Tom Burnett?

I would like him to be remembered as a man of faith and integrity, a man who was unafraid to lead, who was unafraid to stand up and right a wrong and a person who lived every day of his life trying to be a good citizen.

A man holds two babies in his arms
Tom Burnett holds his newborn daughters in his arms.
Courtesy of Deena Burnett Bailey

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