9/11: Nine years on...

Deena Burnett remembers the call from her husband on Flight 93. The plane crashed, with no survivors, but the passengers' calmness under extraordinary pressure prevented a greater tragedy

Sunday 23 October 2011 07:25

Throughout our marriage, Tom and I always had this feeling that, one day, we were going to be caught up in something significant. I feared Tom was going to be in a plane crash – we'd even discussed what would happen if he was on a hijacked plane. He, meanwhile, always had this feeling that he'd be involved in "something big", something involving the White House. But neither of us could ever have imagined the events of 9/11.

I got up at around 6am. It was my youngest daughter's first day at pre-school, so she was very excited. We put on the television, and suddenly it was right there – a plane was flying through one of the towers of the World Trade Center. A few minutes later, another plane did the same. Like everyone else, I was shocked and horrified: but I was also desperately worried about Tom, because he was in New York. And then I remembered he was catching a plane that morning from Newark to San Francisco. I wondered what time he had to be at the airport, and hoped he was already out of New York City.

My mum phoned, and then my mother-in-law, both asking about Tom. Then I noticed another caller was waiting, and I told his mum I'd call her back and switched to the waiting call... and it was Tom. I heard his voice and I said: "Tom... you're OK." And he said: "No, I'm not. I'm on a hijacked airplane. It's Flight 93, United Airlines Newark to San Francisco. The hijackers are trying to get into the cockpit and they've knifed a guy. I think they've got a bomb, and they may have a gun. I need you to call the authorities." And then he hung up.

I remember standing there petrified, unable to move. I felt this incredible panic inside me – and yet on the outside I knew I couldn't panic. Our three daughters – Halley and Madison, the twins, were five, and Anna Clare was three – were standing around me, they were tugging on my dressing-gown, asking to talk to their dad. We still had the TV on in the background with all the coverage from the World Trade Center, and I remember thinking: who do you call for a hijacking?

Then I moved – and once I did move, I couldn't stop. This huge burst of energy surged through me, the adrenalin was flowing, and I started desperately thumbing through the phone book, through all the books on the kitchen counter, thinking: who do I call? Then I just threw everything down and called 911. I spoke to the 911 operator, then to the police department, then to the sheriff's department, then they put me back to the police department and then to the FBI. I was trying to stay very calm and to go through the story very exactly – I didn't want to scare the children, and I wanted to do it exactly right, to do everything I could to get it right, because I was so aware that Tom was in danger and that he needed me, needed my help.

The FBI agent had a hard time getting to grips with what I was telling him. He kept asking, you mean this is a third plane? And I was saying, yes, I saw two planes crash into the World Trade Center, then after that my husband called. And then while I was still talking to the FBI, the phone flashed a light to say there was another call waiting. I knew it was Tom, so I hung up on the FBI man and took the call.

This time Tom had lots of questions, about the World Trade Center. He was asking me, how many planes were there? Who were the people behind the hijacks? What did they want? Did I know where they might be taking his plane? We were having a very calm conversation – I used to be a flight attendant and I'm sure that helped, I could visualise the inside of the plane cabin very easily, and I knew where he was and what he needed to do. I could tell he needed to gather information, that he was trying to solve the problem. I could hear him passing the information I was giving him on to others, and I could hear them talking. And I was still watching the television, and passing on what I was hearing from there. I remember him saying "OK, OK, OK". And then he said: "Oh my God, it's a suicide mission."

I could hear from Tom's voice that he was being businesslike, matter-of-fact, because this was the only way to try to solve the problem. I think we were both feeling the same emotions – he was a passionate man, and like me he must have made the connection between the planes hitting the World Trade Center, and what was happening on his plane. But he was treating it as if it was a separate event because he needed to feel he could control it. I had to do the same. Also, I believed in Tom. I knew he was an incredible man, that he was great at negotiating. I knew he was capable of handling the situation, and I recognised that he needed information to help him.

I never forget that Tom was the one who connected the dots, not me. I was just counting on him to make everything OK and any assistance I could provide was given out of love for him, not in the thought that it would eventually impact history.

On the third call he said he was putting a plan together to overthrow the hijackers. I asked who was helping him and he said "there's a group of us". He said the guy who'd been knifed was dead – he said he'd tried to help him, but there was too much bleeding. He said the hijackers were talking about crashing the plane, and he said, "We can't let them do that... we're going to do something." Then I saw on the television that another plane had crashed into the Pentagon, and he asked me about that.

On the last call, he asked about the girls, and about his parents. I told him the children wanted to talk to him and he said: "Tell them I'll talk to them later." I told him they were having breakfast; I said I'd called his parents and that they knew his plane had been hijacked, and he said: "You shouldn't have worried them." I said his sisters, Martha and Mary, were going over to be with them. I said, "Is there anything else I can do?" And he said: "Pray Deena, just pray." And I said: "I am."

I said to Tom that I loved him, and he said not to worry, everything would be OK. I remember him saying he'd be home for dinner. He said "maybe I'll be late, but I'll be home". He said they were going to do something; he said they were waiting until they were over rural land and then they were going to take back the plane. Then we were both silent for a while; I remember holding on to the phone, hearing the hum of the engines, not wanting to hang up, not wanting to sever this thread between us, which we both knew could be the last. I was thinking how much I loved him, and I believe he was thinking the same, that he was sending his love to me down the phone, no words needed to be spoken. Then one more time, before he hung up, he said: "We're going to do something." He didn't say goodbye... and I think he didn't want to say goodbye, he was refusing to believe and refusing to allow me to believe that this might be the end.

Of course, we'll never know for sure what happened next, but I know that Tom knew that the fate of Flight 93 lay with the people on that plane, and that he realised he was the one who could make a difference. He needed information. I gave him that information, and he stepped up, spoke out, and together with a group of strangers he led a charge down the aisle and into the cockpit to try to take back the plane.

I still think about those conversations all the time, I'll think about them until the day I die. At one level it was a conversation between a husband and wife who cared very deeply for one another and very deeply for their children and wider family; at another level, it was a conversation that was going to impact on history. Tom and I always had communicated well, and that morning was no different; only that morning, it mattered to a lot of other people as well that we were able to get the information back and forth.

One strange thing is that if the plane had hit the White House, where it's believed the hijackers hoped to crash it, there were 200 students there from Little Rock in Arkansas, where I now live, visiting that day. So occasionally now, I run into a parent whose child was there that day; a child who might have been killed if Tom and I hadn't had that conversation.

After Tom had hung up I held on to the phone for hours, thinking he would call, just one more time. I held on to the phone until the battery ran down: everyone kept trying to take it from me, but I would not let it go. The police arrived and I remember a policeman trying to pry it from my fingers, but I held on... In some ways I've never let go of it... Tom's words to me, in those conversations, have gone on sustaining me as I've struggled to bring up our three daughters. His words live on in my heart. I know he did something. I know he helped avert a bigger disaster. I know that, when he was called on as an ordinary citizen to make an extraordinary gesture, he did the very best he could. And our daughters know that, too; and we'll never forget it, just as we'll never forget Tom.

When I think back to that day, I feel it was one of the toughest of my life – I was tested as a wife, as a mother, as a daughter, as a citizen. And yet the much tougher time was still to come: because raising our three children, in the nine years since Tom died, has been the hardest thing of all.

One thing that's been very difficult has been keeping the girls grounded. Tom and I had morals and values and ideas about how we wanted to raise our daughters and what influences we wanted on their lives – but neither of us could have imagined the fallout from 9/11. People still come up to us in the street, they ask us to sign autographs and to give speeches. We've had some wonderful experiences because of what happened – we've been to the White House, travelled to Europe, met celebrities. It's a challenge for me to keep their feet on the ground, to make sure there's balance, reminding them what really matters. We were just an ordinary family, then something extraordinary happened, and now my children's lives seem different from their friends' lives and that's not how Tom or I would have chosen it to be.

I remarried four years ago, and I've now got a young son also, but explaining to our three daughters why their father died, and at the same time trying to ensure I don't terrify them, don't leave them scared of flying or of other people or of life in general – that's been the most difficult part. For me, it wasn't just one day – the test has gone on and on. And it will continue: what my children have to deal with is going to follow them into adulthood. Even when they're mothers, and I'm a grandmother, we'll still be dealing with this.

Deena Burnett was talking to Joanna Moorhead. 9/11: State of Emergency, Saturday, 11 Sept, 9pm Channel 4

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