Editor’s Note: The following was sent to William F. Buckley Jr. by Thomas Burnett Sr., whose son, Tom, died while attempting to retake control of United Airlines Flight 93 from its al-Qaeda hijackers on September 11, 2001. It first appeared in the Notes & Asides section of National Review’s May 20, 2002, issue. We are reprinting it here in remembrance of the 9/11 attacks, which took place 19 years ago today.
Dear Mr. Buckley: On behalf of my entire family, I want to thank you for your tribute to my son Tom [Burnett] in your February 8 letter to subscribers. As a longtime reader and supporter of National Review, I was touched by your account of his heroism on September 11, 2001.
I thought you might find of interest the following account of Tom’s four cell-phone calls from Flight 93 to his wife, Deena, which she reconstructed from memory shortly thereafter.
It shows that Tom was instrumental in informing his fellow passengers of the atrocities that were occurring in New York and at the Pentagon and in leading them to an act of unparalleled sacrifice and courage that saved thousands of lives and spared a great symbol of our democracy from destruction. Their desire to save others’ lives even led them to wait until they were over a rural area before launching their assault on the terrorists.
Tom’s last — and greatest — act was completely in his character as a leader, which he often demonstrated during his short life. With no warning, Tom and the other passengers on Flight 93 were suddenly placed in the vanguard of the War on Terrorism. Facing unfathomable choices, Tom was calm, clear-headed, decisive, and fearless. I can only hope that in the days and years to come, the rest of us live up to the standard of character and heroism he set.
“He died as a hero to millions,” Tom’s longtime friend and fraternity brother Jeff Swanson said. “None of us will likely be in the position in which Tom found himself that morning, so we can’t emulate his last acts, but we can emulate how he lived: with character, courage, spirit, curiosity, integrity, and love.”
Thomas E. Burnett Sr.
9:27 a.m. [cell-phone call]
Deena: Tom, are you okay?
Tom: No, I’m not. I’m on an airplane that has been hijacked.
Tom: Yes, they just knifed a guy.
Deena: A passenger?
Deena: Where are you? Are you in the air?
Tom: Yes, yes, just listen. Our airplane has been hijacked. It’s United Flight 93 — Newark to San Francisco. We are in the air. The hijackers have already knifed a guy, one of them has a gun, they are telling us there is a bomb on board, please call the authorities.
(He hung up.)
9:34 [the phone rang on call waiting, Tom’s cell phone]
Tom: They’re in the cockpit. The guy they knifed is dead.
Deena: He’s dead?
Tom: Yes. I tried to help him, but I couldn’t get a pulse.
Deena: Tom, they are hijacking planes all up and down the East Coast. They are taking them and hitting designated targets. They’ve already hit both towers of the World Trade Center.
Tom: They’re talking about crashing this plane [a pause]. Oh, my God. It’s a suicide mission [he talks to people sitting around him].
Deena: Who are you talking to?
Tom: My seatmate. Do you know which airline is involved?
Deena: No, they don’t even know if they’re commercial airlines or not. The news reporters are speculating: cargo planes, private planes, commercial planes. No one knows.
Tom: How many planes are there?
Deena: They’re not sure. At least three. Maybe more.
Tom: Okay, okay. Do you know who is involved?
Tom: We’re turning back toward New York. We’re going back to the World Trade Center. No, wait, we’re turning back the other way. We’re going south.
Deena: What do you see?
Tom: Just a minute, I’m looking. I don’t see anything, we’re over a rural area. It’s just fields. I’ve gotta go.
(He hung up.)
Deena: Tom, you’re okay? [I thought at this point he had just survived the Pentagon plane crash.]
Tom: No, I’m not.
Deena: They just hit the Pentagon.
Tom: [He tells people sitting around him, “They just hit the Pentagon.”] Okay, okay. What else can you tell me?
Deena: They think five airplanes have been hijacked. One is still on the ground. They believe all of them are commercial planes. I haven’t heard them say which airline, but all of them originated on the East Coast.
Tom: Do you know who is involved?
Tom: I’m wondering what is the probability of their having a bomb on board. I don’t think they have one. I think they’re just telling us that for crowd control.
Deena: A plane can survive a bomb if it’s in the right place.
Tom: Did you call the authorities?
Deena: Yes, they didn’t know anything about your plane.
Tom: They’re talking about crashing this plane into the ground. We have to do something. I’m putting a plan together.
Deena: Who’s helping you?
Tom: Different people. Several people. There’s a group of us. Don’t worry. I’ll call you back.
Tom: Hi. Anything new?
Tom: Where are the kids?
Deena: They’re fine. They’re sitting at the table having breakfast. They’re asking to talk to you.
Tom: Tell them I’ll talk to them later.
Deena: I called your parents. They know your plane has been hijacked.
Tom: Oh . . . you shouldn’t have worried them. How are they doing?
Deena: They’re okay. Mary and Martha are with them.
Tom: Good [a long, quiet pause]. We’re waiting until we’re over a rural area. We’re going to take back the airplane.
Deena: No! Sit down, be still, be quiet, and don’t draw attention to yourself! [the exact words taught to me by Delta Airlines flight-attendant training]
Tom: Deena, if they’re going to crash this plane into the ground, we’re going to have to do something.
Deena: What about the authorities?
Tom: We can’t wait for the authorities. I don’t know what they could do anyway. It’s up to us. I think we can do it.
Deena: What do you want me to do?
Tom: Pray, Deena, just pray.
Deena: [after a long pause] I love you.
Tom: Don’t worry, we’re going to do something.
(He hung up.)