One of my fellow University of Minnesota Alumni Association members, Tom Burnett, class of '86, was recently thrust into the face of danger and became a national hero.
According to his friends and family, Tom was always a take-charge sort of guy. At 6-2 and 205 pounds, he had been the quarterback and leader of his high school football team in Bloomington, Minn. In 2001, at age 38, he was the senior vice president of a medical research company in California.
On Sept. 11, 2001, he was seated in first class on United Flight 93 from Newark to San Francisco, returning home from a business trip in New York. His wife, Deena, was at home in San Ramon, Calif., preparing breakfast for their three daughters when she received the first of four phone calls from Tom aboard the plane.
In a low voice, Tom told his wife that his plane had been hijacked, someone had been stabbed and that there was a bomb on board. He told Deena to contact the authorities and quickly ended the call.
As Deena was on the phone with the FBI, Tom called a second time to notify her that the hijackers had managed to gain entrance into the cockpit. Deena then told Tom about how some commercial airplanes had crashed into the World Trade Center. Tom peppered her with questions, then hung up.
Other passengers on Flight 93 had also been in contact with loved ones on the ground. Soon the passengers began to realize they were in a serious predicament. One of the flight attendants was talking to her husband on the phone in the kitchen galley as she was filling coffeepots with boiling water to throw at the hijackers.
Tom Burnett made another call to his wife. Deena had just learned that a plane had slammed into the Pentagon and was certain it was her husband's flight. As she related the latest incident, Tom's worst fears had come true. He figured the entire East Coast of America was under attack and wondered aloud if the hijackers really had a bomb. "We've got to do something -- I've got to go," he announced, then hung up.
All the passengers had been sequestered in the tail end of the plane. Among them:
* Jeremy Glick, 6-1, 220-pound former NCAA judo champion
* Mark Bingham, 6-5, 200-pound former rugby player on the national championship team
* Lou Nacke, 5-3, 200-pound weightlifter with a Superman tattoo
* Rich Guadagno, California Wildlife Enforcement Officer
* Alan Beaven, 6-3, rock climber and Scotland Yard prosecutor
* William Cashman, ex-paratrooper with the 101st Airborne
* Tom Burnett made his fourth and final call to Deena. The first thing he wanted to know was if any more structures had been hit. He said he had been talking to other passengers and told her, "we're going to do something."
They both reaffirmed their love for each other. Then Deena asked what else she could do.
"Just pray," Tom told her, then marched off to do what had to be done.
At precisely 9:57 a.m., the cockpit voice recorder began to pick up the sounds of chaos. One of the passengers can be heard shouting, "Let's get them!" The hijackers yell at each other to hold the door. Dishes and trays can be heard crashing about. The plane goes into a steep dive. Lots of confusion. Apparently, the hijackers are now fighting amongst themselves to gain control of the plane. One of the passengers shouts something incoherent. A hijacker responds by crying out, "God is great!"
Then the voice recorder goes silent as United Flight 93 crashed in a blaze of glory into the countryside of southeastern Pennsylvania.
The final horror of Sept. 11, 2001, has come to an end.
Although there was contact with folks on the ground, no one will ever know exactly what happened in those final moments. For certain, many brave men and women rose to the occasion and became united heroes.
The magnificence of their action will not soon be forgotten.