ST. PAUL, Minn. — There isn’t a day that goes by that Tom and Beverly Burnett don’t think about Sept. 11, 2001, and what that day cost their family: the life of their son, Tom Burnett Jr., who helped to lead the effort to take back United Airlines Flight 93 from its terrorist hijackers.
That effort succeeded: the plane-turned-flying-bomb didn’t reach its target, believed to be the White House or U.S. Capitol. But, it crashed in a Pennsylvania field, killing all 44 people on board, including 38-year-old “Tommy,” who had switched the time of his flight in hopes of making it home earlier on his twin daughters’ first day of kindergarten.
In the 20 years since, the Burnetts, who raised their three children in Bloomington, where they were founding members of St. Edward parish, have leaned on their Catholic faith. But their suffering is a deep ache that doesn’t subside.
“It seems like yesterday that we found out that Tommy wasn’t coming home anymore,” said Beverly, 90. “So, 20 years is a long time, but it seems like yesterday he was on that plane, and we were all praying that he would get off.”
The Burnett family — which includes Tom Jr.’s sisters, Martha Burnett Pettee and Mary Burnett Jurgens — have channeled their grief into a foundation they began in 2002, just a year after 9/11. The foundation supports youth leadership programs and scholarships, with a focus on helping young people become good citizens.
Tom Jr.’s final moments are chronicled, in pieces, through several phone conversations he had from the flight with his wife, Deena, as well as the plane’s black box recording, which was recovered from the crash site and confirms he was near or in the cockpit.
Deena, who had trained as a flight attendant, told him that he should just lay low and not draw attention to himself. Tom, however, didn’t see that as an option. The last thing he told her was: “Don’t worry, we’re going to do something.”
Those words — “We’re going to do something” — have become a sort of motto for the Burnetts. They remember Tom Jr. as a man of action, a lifelong leader and ambitious executive at a medical device company who sought out opportunities for education, responsibility and growth.
“He was a lot of fun, and he enjoyed life,” his father said.
Tom Jr. called his mom regularly and had spoken to her the night before he died from his hotel, overlooking New York’s Times Square where he had been for business.
He had misplaced his phone before going to the airport and wanted his mom to know he’d found it. Little did he know how much he would need it the next day. When he realized the plane had been hijacked, he called Deena, and she told him about what had happened in New York.
As the Burnett family has recounted countless times as they’ve shared their story, they know Tom Jr. had recurring dreams and visions about something significant happening in his future involving Washington. “He kept thinking, I need to pray more and figure out what this is about,” Tom’s sister, Jurgens, said, adding that it prompted him to attend daily Mass throughout the year before he died.
Jurgens, 51, and a parishioner of St. Therese in Deephaven, remembers watching footage of the crash into the first tower from a café, where she had stopped for coffee on her way to work. She saw the second plane hit in real time.
Knowing Tom had been in New York, she called Deena, who told her that Tom was on a hijacked plane. Jurgens called her parents from her work’s parking lot, then drove home to be with them.
They clung to hope that Tom would be OK. That hope was renewed when another plane hit the Pentagon around 10:30 a.m. Central Time, Deena assured them that Tom was still alive. When news broke about a flight that went down in Pennsylvania shortly after 11 a.m. Central Time, they thought maybe it had been a “soft” landing –that Tom, if aboard, had survived.
But then they saw TV footage of the crash site.
“It was just a hole,” Jurgens said. “There was nothing left.”
The Burnetts endured those first awful hours with the help of their parish priest, Father Mike Tegeder, St. Edward’s pastor from 1998 to 2011. Tom Sr. had walked across the street to the parish to find the priest when he learned his son was on the hijacked flight.
Father Tegeder held a prayer service at the parish that night and was a regular fixture in their home in the days and weeks after, the Burnetts recalled.
They’ve also had the support of Msgr. Joseph Slepicka, Tom Sr.’s lifelong friend and a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Dubuque, Iowa. He accompanied the family on their first visit to the Pennsylvania crash site in April 2002 and offered Mass in the field.
For Jurgens, that Mass felt like her brother’s true funeral liturgy. The family held a funeral at St. Edward the next month.
In past years, the Burnett family has marked the 9/11 anniversary together with Mass celebrated by Msgr. Slepicka. It won’t be able to happen in the same way this year, due to many factors, including COVID-19. This year, they’re gathering together as a family Sept. 12.
On Sept. 11, Jurgens and Pettee plan to attend a University of Minnesota football game, where a newly endowed scholarship established by the Tom Burnett Family Foundation will be recognized.
With the 20th anniversary of 9/11, the Burnetts decided to focus the foundation’s efforts on creating the Burnett Scholar program at the university’s Carlson School of Management with a donation of $300,000.
The family has also supported the installation of a new public memorial for 9/11 victims in Wayzata. It includes small pieces of the fallen World Trade Center buildings, which were given about 10 years ago to the City of Wayzata from the Aamoth family — Wayzata residents whose son, 32-year-old Gordy Aamoth Jr., was among the 2,763 people killed in the New York attacks. The memorial will be unveiled Sept. 11.
Beverly is grateful the memorial is in a spot where people will encounter it as they walk downtown. She is concerned about people forgetting about 9/11, and said she’s met Americans who don’t remember what happened that day.
Over the years, many people have given the Burnetts mementos and awards to honor their son. Beverly recently donated much of it to the Bloomington Historical Society. However, one of those gifts is prominently displayed in her apartment: an icon of the Virgin Mary holding the burning twin towers.
The icon, labeled “Our Lady of Sorrows, ” is from the Poor Clares, who until recently lived in a convent in Bloomington, and in whose chapel the Burnett family often marked the 9/11 anniversary.
While 9/11 “seems like yesterday” for Beverly and Tom Sr., life has gone on for the Burnetts. There have been graduations, weddings and new jobs. Tom Sr. and Beverly have grieved other deaths and rejoiced in births, including those of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They’ve also met a granddaughter whom Tom Jr. and a college sweetheart had given up for adoption in 1985.
Deena has remarried, and her and Tom Jr.’s three daughters, Halley, Madison and Anna Clare — who were only 5 and 3 years old when their dad was killed — have graduated from college and begun careers.
When the Burnetts think about “Tommy,” they often go back to a weekend they spent together just weeks before he died. By chance, he, his parents and his sisters — just the five of them — ended up having dinner and watching a Neil Diamond concert on TV, sincerely enjoying each other’s company.
And on this 9/11 anniversary, Jurgens, said their family is sad that Tom Jr. is gone, but they also know he “lived out his plan.”
“You just don’t know what’s out there, for all of us,” she said, advising others to “live with your heart open to that.”
To learn more about the Burnett Scholar program at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, follow the Tom Burnett Family Foundation on Facebook at @tomburnettfamily or on Instagram at @tomburnett.family.
Wiering is editor of The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.