Tom Burnett: A Hero on Flight 93 | An interview with Deena Burnett, author (with Anthony Giombetti) of Fighting Back: Defining Moments in the Life of an American Hero, Tom Burnett
Fighting Back is the timely and inspiring story of Thomas Burnett, the ringleader of the small group of courageous men that fought back against the terrorists on United Flight 93 on September 11, 2001, that crashed in the fields in Pennsylvania. His wife Deena tells about the incredible details of that horrific day, the now famous four cell phone calls her husband made to her from the plane, his quick assessment of the alarming suicidal flight plan, and his decision to "do something." She tells about all that happened to her and her children in the days and months after that devastating day, and how the love, faith and strength of her departed husband helped her to fight back to find purpose and joy in her life again.
She also tells about Tom's life story, showing how he was an ordinary American who was deeply patriotic, a very good athlete, a loving father and husband, a successful businessman, and a devout Catholic and daily communicant. This powerful book reveals the inspiring courage, character, faith and integrity that Tom Burnett showed in all the aspects of his life as a father, husband and businessman, and how his valor and leadership in that perilous plane were the result of how he lived his life every day. His story will strengthen and inspire all "ordinary" Americans, and Catholics, to imitate this man's life of commitment to excellence, patriotism, devotion to family, and love of God. It is a story of suffering, sacrifice and of rebirth.
Carl E. Olson, editor of IgnatiusInsight.com, recently spoke with Deena Burnett about her late husband, the events of 9/11, and her faith in God.
IgnatiusInsight.com: When and how did you first decide to write Fighting Back?
Deena Burnett: I was approached right after Tom had died, and my first reaction was, "No, I don't want to write anything." But after a few months I realized that it would be important to write it down for my children. In January [of 2006], Anthony [Giombetti] and I got together and started writing. He would interview me and record the interviews, and then he would transcribe those interviews and then we would get together and edit it. That's really when we started. And the idea was to chronicle Tom's life and what had happened on September 11th, and talk about what he did and why he did it. In my mind, it was for my children, to record it, so that they would not forget. Then it evolved into something that I believe with inspire the reader to make a difference.
IgnatiusInsight.com: What do you hope readers will learn from reading the book?
Deena Burnett: Actually, just that; I hope that they are inspired to make a difference, that they see the value of having faith in God and know the importance of passing that faith on to their children.
IgnatiusInsight.com: A central theme of the book is that seemingly ordinary people can do extraordinary things. How did Tom exemplify that it in his ordinary life and in his extraordinary actions on Flight 93?
Deena Burnett: I think that is found throughout the whole book. You certainly see that I try to stress that it wasn't just what he did on September 11th, but that he lived his life with integrity, and I think that it was certainly his upbringing in the Faith that made him kind and attentive and concerned about other people. And I think that those are the values that he brought into the way that he lived, that helped him be a hero everyday of his life, and not just on September 11th.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Tom was obviously a man with a deep faith in God and a love for the Catholic Church. How did that shape him and how did affect you, both before and after 9/11?
Deena Burnett: I think anytime that we doubt and we are then able to research answers for the questions that we have -- whether it is through conversations or through reading a book or prayer or whatever it may be -- that all these things make our faith stronger. And Tom, having gone through several years of being a college student and feeling almost agnostic, I think strengthened his faith, because he didn't just leave it as being content to not believe.
He really had a thirst for information, and he really did the research and he would seek out people who were willing to talk to him about their faith. He read the books, and he went to church, and he kept asking the questions and looking for the answers, and that caused him to be able to look at faith and God and the Bible as things that perhaps cannot be explained by scientists or those who consider themselves to be people of logic. It gave him more value, and it gave him the basis to be able to say, "I know that God exists for these reasons. And as long as we have these reasons, I can continue to practice my faith and know that I am going in the right direction."
And that really made his faith, because he kept seeking the higher truth. It's funny, because he would actually say that: "I'm just searching for the higher truth. I want to know all the answers." Of course, he meant the answers to life. After he died, one of the first things his sister Martha said about him was, "Tom would be really psyched to know all the answers." And we all had a good laugh about that.
IgnatiusInsight.com: How did his faith influence you as you got to know each other, and then got married?
Deena Burnett: It certainly influenced me in that I converted from being Baptist to being Catholic. And in doing so, I found a different way of not only worshiping, but of thinking about God, and God's presence. Growing up in a Baptist church I had always been exposed to the hellfire and brimstone preaching, and in the Catholic Church there is more focus on prayer, meditation, and feeling God's presence. And so it was a new way of developing my relationship with God -- spending more time in prayer and learning that God is a God of love and not a God of vengeance, which was a new concept for me.
And I think that changing my mindset that way -- from seeing a God who is to be feared to a God of love and compassion -- really helped me in dealing with Tom's death because I didn't experience the anger and I didn't want to turn away from God. I wanted to sit in His presence and to find comfort and peace, to do that instead of turning away from Him.
IgnatiusInsight.com: The chapter about what you experienced on 9/11 is, not surprisingly, very intense. But is also incredibly honest and real, especially in relating the emotions and reactions you went through on that day. Looking back now, what did you learn about yourself and about life during that difficult time?
Deena Burnett: That's a good question, one I don't know that I've ever been asked. I think I learned that I rely more on my faith than I would have guessed. I think I learned that each of us have the ability within us to do what needs to be done, whether it is moving forward or making a difference, making a decision, doing what's right, whatever it is, we have the ability to do the right thing. But it's just so often that we choose not to. And I think I found about myself that even though doing the right thing can sometimes be doing the hard thing, in the end I have made the difficult choice -- the better choice -- even though sometimes it's been the difficult choice, and I'm proud of myself for having done that.
I would have thought of myself as someone who would take the easy way out, and I have not done that. I'm not one to sit here and give myself kudos, I'm very uncomfortable doing that, but that's been the most surprising to me, that when called upon to step up to the plate, I've done that. And, you know, I never would have guessed that I would have.
IgnatiusInsight.com: You were one of the people who pushed for the cockpit recordings from Flight 93 to be released. Can you talk a bit about that process and what it meant to you to finally hear those recordings?
Deena Burnett: Well, as early as the morning of September 11th, I was requesting to hear the cockpit voice recorder. I felt like it would just give me some answers as to what happened in those final moments. I didn't know how to go about finding someone who could allow me to hear it. Anyone who had anything to do with the government, I'd just ask them, "Help me." Very early on I met a lady, Ellen Tauscher, a representative from California, who really took me on as her project and helped me. She helped me go through the channels, writing the letters and making the phone calls and putting the pressure on different channels within the FBI and our government to release that cockpit voice recorder. I have told her so many times, "You know, Ellen, that you did this; it was you, but I'm getting all the credit for it." And she would just laugh and say, "That's okay, because I'm just here to help you." She's a great lady, absolutely a great lady. She guided me through the channels and made it happen.
We went to New Jersey in April 2002. We were allowed four family members, each family. We went in to hear it and I went through it twice. They had a transcript on the wall that we were able to see and read in sequence with hearing the audio. And I heard Tom's voice for the first time in several months, and it gave me this incredible sense of peace that I had not expected to find through listening to it. And the peace came because, I think, for the first time in months I knew exactly what had happened by hearing the sounds and being able to visualize what he experienced. After that, it just gave me the energy and the strength to keep moving forward, to keep doing the things that needed to be done, in raising my family and making sure that those responsible for September 11th came to justice.
IgnatiusInsight.com: In the months following 9/11 you gave numerous interviews on high profile televisions programs and dealt with the media quite often. What is your impression, in general of the mainstream media, and how do you think they've handled coverage of 9/11 and its aftermath?
Deena Burnett: I think that almost immediately the press was very respectful, and I was incredibly grateful for that. I initially was very afraid of the media. I kind of laugh about that now because I had a degree in journalism, and yet I was scared to death. But they were very respectful. One thing that I have found during the five years is that they have been very interested in different family members -- any family members, it doesn't matter who they are -- who had something to do with September 11th, and they have created this aura of casting 9/11 family members as authorities on different issues, whether it be political issues, or issues dealing with the war on terrorism. Anything happening with our government having to do with immigration laws, the transportation department, or the war on terrorism, the first thing they do is pull a 9/11 family member away and start interviewing them: "What do you think?"
They have cast them in roles of authority, and I think that is odd, that there would be so much interest in the opinion of 9/11 family members. You know, we have this one experience to fall back upon; I'm sure there are people who are far better qualified than we are to answer most of the questions the media asks concerning these issues.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Do you think that is an indication of the way the media often turns to either celebrities or those perceived to be victims -- real or perceived -- and gives them a kind of special status?
Deena Burnett: Yes, that's a good way of saying it. I've been very surprised how people will call 9/11 family members "celebrities." It's only happened to me once or twice, but it feels very strange, because it's a different situation. It's not a situation where we went seeking the attention. It goes back to being cast in that role that I never expected to play. Actors and actresses intend to become celebrities; they intend to be in the spot light and to be asked the questions, to be seen as someone who is an authority on the issue of the day, and I think they enjoy being in that role because that was their intention to begin with.
For those of us who lost someone we love on September 11th, that was never our intention, and yet we found ourselves in that place anyway. So it makes for a very difficult balance, trying to honor our loved ones, yet feeling an obligation and a responsibility to the public to be present and to be active and to be in the forefront of what is going on.
IgnatiusInsight.com: One way that you are being active has been taking part in a lawsuit seeking to bankrupt terrorist organizations. Can you explain a bit about that?
Deena Burnett: What happened is that Mr. Burnett, Tom's dad, had the idea that since we couldn't help in any other way in the war on terror, that the one thing we could do is to take away the money that the terrorists were being given so that they could no longer fight and attack our government and our citizens. We went to an attorney and asked if we could put a stronghold on the Al Qaeda's funding. We didn't know where it came from; we really just said that we wanted to deal with Osama bin Laden.
The attorney told us he would look into and see what could be done. He came back to us a month later and said that the funding for the Al Qaeda, as well as different terrorist organizations around the world, seems to funnel out of Saudi Arabia. What we could do is file lawsuits against the different individuals and entities that provide that money to them, knowing that money is going to be used for terrorist purposes. And so that's what we did. We ended up with a lawsuit that included one hundred and fifty defendants, ranging from charities and banks to royal family members, who knowingly gave money to terrorist organizations for the purpose of terrorism. Our idea was to stop that money flow so that Al Qaeda would eventually be forced to stop fighting.
IgnatiusInsight.com: How has that gone?
Deena Burnett: Actually, it's going very well, although it has been bogged down in the court system. We had hoped that it would have gone to trial by now, but the research we have had to do, we have been able to really provide documents to our government that have assisted in the war on terrorism. By documents, I mean documents that have identified key players within terrorist organizations around the world, being able to find out where their funding comes from so that we can freeze those accounts. It's been an enormously successful resource in the war on terrorism.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Any final thoughts?
Deena Burnett: Commenting on the book, I think there is something in it for everyone. It certainly is a story in which you feel motivated to pull yourself up and keep walking, if you've experienced a loss, whether it was financial or relational or of a loved one. I hope people read it and find what I call a "take away" -- something they can take with them that they learn by, whether it is making a difference, or finding whatever it is in their own life that is worth fighting for. I hope people are inspired.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Links/Articles:
9/11 Revisited | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
On the Term "Islamo-Fascism" | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Spartans, Traitors, and Terrorists | Dr. Jose Yulo
Plato's Ring in the Sudan: How Freedom Begets Isolation of the Soul | Dr. Jose Yulo
Martyrs and Suicide Bombers | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The One War, The Real War | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Wars Without Violence? | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The Echo of Melos: How Ancient Honor Unmasks Islamic Terror | Dr. Jose Yulo
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