As the full scope of the tragedy came into focus with the passage of the hours, we learned about still other heroes, whose signature act was hidden initially by the confusion of the day, but whose deeds in time became legendary. These were the men and women aboard United Flight 93.
Their plane was delayed in takeoff by almost an hour due to airport traffic. Because of the delay, the forty passengers and crew members aboard were able in the minutes after it was hijacked to discover what had happened in Manhattan and in Washington D.C., while making cell phone calls to family and friends. They were horrified when they put the pieces together, as United 93 turned over Ohio to start back eastward. They were told by the hijackers that it would be best if they did nothing. Over the intercom, they heard the command in broken English: “Sit down, keep remaining seating…We have a bomb on board. So sit.”
But they knew what their attackers intended to do. The World Trade Center and the Pentagon were not randomly selected targets. They are symbols of American strength, American enterprise, the American spirit. Terrorism works this way. The passengers on Flight 93 guessed the hijackers of their plane were aiming for a similarly symbolic target. They gauged the magnitude of that intention and the unspeakable damage that fate would entail, both human and symbolic. And so, they did not sit down.
They stood up, and they put together a plan to resist the terrorists and thwart their designs.
Tom Burnett was one of the four men who spearheaded the effort to retake the plane. He had several conversations with his wife Deena that span the time from the hijack to mere minutes before the plane struck ground.
In the last of these calls, Deena told him of the strike on the Pentagon; she had earlier informed him that the World Trade Center had been hit. “It’s a suicide mission,” he immediately guessed. “We have to do something. I’m putting a plan together with several people,” he said. He told her they were waiting until the plane was over a rural area, at which point they would attempt to take it back from the hijackers. Her reaction was instinctively protective: “No!,” she emphatically responded. “Sit down! Don’t draw attention to yourself!” Tom told Deena to pray, adding: “Don’t worry, Deena. I’ll be home for dinner. I may be late, but I’ll be home.”
When I first read these words in Deena Burnett’s remarkable book about her husband’s life and death, I paused a moment, unsure that I had read the passage correctly. In the face of horror, in a hijacked plane flying at 40,000 feet on a suicide terror mission, he says these words? Not a hint of fear or despair. Unflappable. Confident. Supremely clear of vision and purpose, even while gazing on chaos itself.
This is what real heroes sound like. Those words have stayed with me all these years. They give me confidence, and they give me purpose, and they make me proud of this, my country, Tom Burnett’s country.
Rest in peace.