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9/11 widow recounts final calls from husband on Flight 93 who vowed to 'take back plane' but didn't get to say goodbye

THE widow of one of the heroes aboard Flight 93 on 9/11 has recalled her husband's final words to her from the hijacked 757 before he led a band of passengers in a fight to take back control of the plane.

Deena Burnett-Bailey had been making breakfast for her three young daughters in San Ramon, California on the morning of September 11, 2001, when she looked up at the TV to see that an airplane had crashed into the World Trade Center.



Her husband Tom Burnett, a 38-year-old chief operating officer for a dental implant company, had been in New York City for a business trip and was due to fly home that morning from Newark Airport, in New Jersey.

"I wasn't worried at first," she told The Sun of watching American Airlines Flight 11 slam into the north face of the North Tower. "My first thought was that air traffic control had made a mistake.

"But a few minutes later, the second plane hit. I then quite quickly became concerned about where Tom was.

"I started frantically looking for his itinerary and flight number, and then the phone rang."

It was Tom. But any relief Deena had about her husband being alive quickly evaporated when he told her: "I'm on United Airlines Flight 93 and our plane has been hijacked.

"The hijackers are trying to get into the cockpit, they've already knifed a guy. I need you to call the authorities."

Tom then abruptly hung up.

FROZEN WITH FEAR

Deena said she stood rooted to the spot, the phone still pressed to her ear, "unable to think, unable to move" as she tried to process what her husband had told her.

"I froze. I absolutely froze," she recounted. "I think my first thought was, what I'm seeing on television 3000 miles away is now happening in my living room."

When she finally emerged from her trance, Deena said she felt as though she'd been "struck by a bolt of lightning."

The stay-at-home mom, a former Delta Airlines flight attendant, then began rifling through the yellow pages, trying to figure out who to call to report a hijacking.

She eventually settled on her local police department and was then patched through to the FBI.

"I could hear the FBI agent shouting to people around him as I was giving him the information," Deena said. "He kept saying it's a third plane, there's another plane."

Deena told the agent she needed to hang up because she was getting another call.

It was Tom again.

Read our 9/11 live blogfor the very latest news and updates…


'A SUICIDE MISSION'

The Minnesota native began by telling Deena that the hijackers were now in the cockpit, and the person that they'd stabbed was dead. He also said he believed they had a bomb and a gun on board.

It was then that Deena informed her husband about the two hijacked planes that had crashed into the World Trade Center buildings.

There was a brief pause in their conversation before Tom was hit with a realization.

"Oh my God. It's a suicide mission," he said, according to a transcript of the call.

Deena said he immediately began sharing the information with those seated around him.

He then once again told her that he needed to go and promised to call her back shortly.



Tom's tone in the first call, which Deena described as irritated, had shifted to one of obvious concern in the second, she said.

"In the first phone call, he was absolutely irritated that his plane had been hijacked," Deena reflected. "He had had a really bad week – and I mean a really bad week.

"Someone had broken into our farmhouse in Wisconsin, he was going to have to go up there and deal with that and change the locks. He lost his cell phone in Minnesota … a few things at work had also not gone well.

"He was just irritated now there was one more thing: he was trying to get home and they had hijacked his plane."

Deena continued: "On the second call, I told him other planes had been hijacked and crashed into the World Trade Center buildings and suddenly he realized, as he said, it was a suicide mission – not just a hijacking. 

"So his demeanor changed to something more concerned. He began asking all of the questions and gathering as much information as he could. You could tell he was trying to solve the problem."

'WE HAVE A PLAN'

Sometime around 9.50am ET, Tom called Deena for what would be the third and final time. A calm voice greeted her on the other end of the phone.

"He told me that he was putting a plan together to take back the airplane, not to worry that there was a group of them, everything would be okay," Deena remembered.

"He asked about the kids and I told him they were having their breakfast and wanted to talk to him. And he said, 'Tell them I'll talk to them later. I'll be home tonight, I may be late, but I'll be home.'"

Deena said Tom told her that he and the group of other passengers were waiting until they were flying over a rural area before commencing their attempt to "take back the plane."

"I remember just something inside of me just kind of reverted back to my flight attendant training, and I just scolded him and said, 'You need to sit down, be still be quiet and not draw attention to yourself – because that's what we were taught to do.'

"And he yelled into the phone, 'No! No! No! If they're going to drive this plane into the ground we are going to do something.'"


Deena said, at that point, she was unsure what to say next. She said she envisioned herself holding his hand and tried to channel the feeling of his presence in the room.

"I couldn't hear anything in the background [of the call]," she said. "It was quiet. I could hear the hum of the engine and that was it. It just sounded like a normal flight otherwise."

Deena then asked her husband if there was anything she could do.

"Pray, Deena. Just Pray," he told her.

"I said 'I am. I love you,'" Deena added. "And he said 'don't worry, we're going to do something.'

"And then he hung up the phone and led the passengers and crew members down the aisle."

Deena waited anxiously by the phone, but Tom wouldn't call again.

"That was it. Those were his last words to me," she said.

FLIGHT 93

United Airlines Flight 93 was one of four commercial aircraft hijacked by al-Qaeda operatives on September 11, 2001.

Ziad Jarrah, a trained pilot; and three others, who were all trained in unarmed combat, took control of the airplane at 9.28am ET, around 40 minutes into the flight.

Air traffic control registered the plane diving down around 7,000 feet from its assigned altitude before a "mayday" radio transmission came over the airwaves.

"Mayday! Get out of here!" the pilot, Jason Dahl, was heard shouting over the sounds of a physical struggle.

The terrorists took control of the cockpit and turned the plane southeast on a course directed toward Washington, DC.

While the terrorists' desired target is not known, it's believed they planned to fly the aircraft into either the White House or the US Capitol Building.



After taking command of the controls, Jarrah threatened the 40 passengers and crew onboard over the intercom, telling them: "Ladies and Gentlemen: Here the captain, please sit down keep remaining sitting. We have a bomb on board. So, sit.”

In the following 20 minutes, Tom and a number of other passengers called loved ones and held a vote on whether to storm the cockpit or not.

Passenger Jeremy Glick also told his wife Liz of the plan to take back the plane, reportedly joking to her: "I have my butter knife from breakfast."

Flight attendant Sandra Bradshaw, meanwhile, started boiling water to throw at the terrorists.

Others who couldn't get through to their loved ones left gut-wrenching voicemails instead.

CeeCee Lyles, another member of the cabin crew, told her husband: "Hi baby, I’m – you have to listen to me carefully. I’m on a plane that’s been hijacked. I’m on the plane, I’m calling from the plane.

"I want to tell you that I love you. Please tell my children that I love them very much and I’m so sorry baby … I hope to be able to see your face again, baby. I love you. Bye.”

Todd Beamer had been on a call with a telephone operator when Tom and the collective of other passengers gathered to strike.

"Are you guys ready?" Beamer was heard asking. "Let's roll."

PASSENGER REVOLT

At 9:57am, moments after Tom hangs up on Deena for the final time, the cockpit voice recorder captured the sound of passengers attempting to break down the door.

They can be heard yelling as they desperately thump against it, with the sound of shattering plates and glasses clattering out in the background.

Jarrah tried to deter the passengers by cutting off the oxygen to the cabin and pitching the plane from left to right in an attempt to knock them off balance.

But still, they continued to fight.

Around 20 minutes from Washington the hijackers discussed crashing the plane early.

"Shall we finish it off?" Jarrah asked another of the hijackers. They responded: "Not yet. When they all come, we finish it off."

At 10.01am, Jarrah asked again if he should crash the aircraft, to which this time he was told: "Yes, put it in it, and pull it down."

He pulled the control wheel hard to the left, causing the plane to fly upside down before crashing into the ground at 580 miles an hour in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania at 10.03am.

All 44 passengers and crew aboard the aircraft – including the four hijackers – were killed.


'I BELIEVED HIM'

Deena had been upstairs in her home, getting dressed for the day as she anxiously awaited Tom to call for a fourth time, then unaware of his tragic fate.

Her husband, whom she described as "confident, capable, and a natural leader", had never told her goodbye in any of their three calls.

She said she believed him when he told her everything was going to be okay. If he had any inclination it wasn't going to be, he'd have spoken to the children, called his parents, and told her he loved her, she thought.

"I think that people find it strange when I tell them that he didn't expect to die on that flight, but you would have to know who he was to understand," Deena said.

"He just was so incredibly capable of making things happen that other people could not make happen. And so I think that's why I think that he just thought, we have this plan in place if everything goes according to the plan, then we're going to survive this.

"So that was just, you know, what I heard in his voice. When he said, everything was going to be okay, I believed him," she said.

"I believed him. I knew that he could do it."

'AN EXTRAORDINARY MAN'

Deena met Tom in Marierra, Georgia in 1989 when she was a flight attendant with Delta Airlines.

She had been out drinking with 20 of her flight attendant classmates at a restaurant as they celebrated the end of their training.

Deena's roommate beckoned Tom over from the bar to come and sit with them. By the end of the night, the roommate had given him all of their phone numbers.


He called Deena in the days that followed and the pair eventually went out to dinner together at a local Applebees.

They ended up closing down the restaurant, just talking. And three years later they were married.

What drew Deena to Tom, she said, was his undeniable charisma.

"Tom was one of those people that would just walk in a room and you knew he was there, and you'd wonder who he was and how do you get to meet him … very charming, a lot of charisma.

"He was intense, like just an intense leadership kind of personality. You just knew the guy was going places.

"He was just truly an extraordinary man," she said. "He was not your average guy, and you hear people say, 'Ordinary people doing extraordinary things,' – but there was nothing ordinary about Tom Burnett. Not one thing."

'I JUST FELL'

Deena learned of Tom's death after a policeman walked into her home and called for her to come downstairs.

"I could tell by the look on his face that something had happened," she recounted. "And I said, 'Is it Tom?' and he said, 'Ma'am, there's been another plane crash and I think it was your husband’s.'"

Deena turned towards the television as she came down the stairs to see images on the news of a crater in the ground in rural Pennsylvania, with the words "United Flight 93" visible on screen.

"I just began to search on the TV screen for parts of the airplane for people for luggage for anything that could have survived. And there was nothing.

"At that point, I just fell. I absolutely fell, and the policeman was standing beside me and he picked me up and helped me over to the sofa.

"I just was so incredibly full of sorrow," Deena said. "A type of sorrow that I have never ever felt in my whole life."

Deena said she just laid down and cried on the sofa for what felt like hours.

In the meantime, a swarm of TV cameras, reporters, and photographers had gathered in front of her home.

In an attempt to keep them at bay, a number of her neighbors had joined hands to form a human fence around her front yard.

Deena was forced to put on a brave front when her three daughters – five-year-old twins, Halley and Madison, and Anna Clare, three – returned home from school.

She had wanted to wait until the following day to inform them of their father's fate, but the three girls kept asking her who the people outside the window were and why they were there.

"I realized I had to tell the girls before they found out from someone else," she said. "So I just gathered them on the bed, and I said, 'Girls do you remember this morning. When I was talking to your dad on the phone? Well, daddy had a little problem on the airplane.

"There were some bad guys on the plane, and they caused the airplane to crash. And when it crashed, everyone on board died, including your daddy.'"

Deena said her daughters fell very still, before one of the twins cried out "No! No! No!", as tears pooled in their eyes.

They asked her if they could still call Tom on his cell phone or send him a letter, but Denna had to tell them there are "no phones or mail in Heaven."

"I just answered their questions and we talked about what it means to be an angel, how he wouldn't be able to come back and it's not what he wanted. How he wanted to say goodbye, but it happened so fast that he could that he didn't have a choice.

"I was out of my mind is what I was, and just not knowing what to do, but I bathed them and dressed them for bed and prayed with them.

"I told them everything would be okay, just like Tom had told me earlier that day."

While Deena said the full gravity of the situation wouldn't dawn on the girls until months and years later, she said it was "So, so sad to see how each girl dealt with the grief."

TOM'S LEGACY

Saturday marks 20 years since Tom Burnett and 2,996 other people were killed in the September 11th attacks.

Deena, who has since remarried and relocated to Arkansas, said she has thought of Tom and "felt every moment" of 9/11 every day since.

Each year, she and her girls typically spend the anniversary of Tom's death at Pepperdine University, his alma mater, attending a memorial ceremony and visiting the campus' Heroes Garden where he is honored.

But this year, for the very first time, she is taking the girls to visit the site of the crash in Shanksville. Deena has visited the site twice before but Tom's daughters have never been.


Remembering her late husband, Deena told The Sun: "I am extremely proud of who he was, both in his life and in his death. 

"I was always the bride and the wife who was so proud to be married to him and to have him as my partner and be by his side.

"He was an incredible man, and I recognize that every single day, and I'm so grateful for the time that we had together.

"And so to say that I'm proud of what he did on Flight 93 – I have always been proud of him. Always. And this is just one more thing that he did to justify that pride."

Deena says she sees Tom's story as a legacy for his children to carry on, and as a source of inspiration for others in how to act courageously in the face of evil and adversity.

"This is just who Tom was, this wasn't unusual for him. It was an example of his character" she said.

"He believed in right and wrong; he believed that we should do what's right; he believed there was always a way to overcome evil with good.

"I want people to know that he was a man of integrity, he was a man of strong character. He was a man who was a great husband, a great father, a wonderful friend, and a devoted son.

"Tom wasn't just a hero on 9/11. He did things every day that were admirable.

"And we want the men in our lives to aspire to be like Tom."

9/11 timeline of events

The 9/11 terror attacks occurred 20 years ago. Here is a timeline of the day:

  • 5:45am – Hijackers get through security in Portland, Maine and board American Airlines Flight 11 that was scheduled to fly to Boston.
  • 7:59am – American Airlines Flight 11 takes off from Boston to Los Angeles. The plane is carrying 76 passengers, 11 crew and five hijackers.
  • 8:15am – United Airlines Flight 175, carrying 51 passengers, nine crew and five hijackers, takes off from Boston to Los Angeles.
  • 8:20am -American Airlines Flight 77 takes off from Washington, DC. The plane is carrying 53 passengers, six crew and five hijackers.
  • 8:42am – United Airlines Flight 93 takes off from Newark. The plane is carrying 33 passengers, seven crew and four hijackers. The flight was bound to San Francisco.
  • 8:46am – Flight 11 crashes into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
  • 9:03am – Flight 175 hits the South Tower of the World Trade Center.
  • 9:36am – Vice President Dick Cheney is evacuated by Secret Service agents to an undisclosed location.
  • 9:37am – Flight 77 hits the Pentagon building in Washington, DC.
  • 9:45am – The US Capitol and White House are both evacuated.
  • 9:59am – The South Tower was the first to collapse after burning for around 56 minutes.
  • 10:03am – United Airlines flight 93 crashes into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The passengers and crew got together and stormed the cockpit of the hijacked plane. All passengers on board are killed.
  • 10:28am – The North Tower collapses.
  • 8:30pm – President George W. Bush addresses the US from the White House regarding the attacks. Almost 3,000 Americans died in the terror attacks.

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