Special Reports

Calls from Flight 93 reveal passengers' brave determination

Deena Burnett clutched the phone at her home in San Ramon, Calif. She was at once terrified, yet strangely calmed by her husband's steady voice over his cell phone.

"Just listen," Tom said in a hushed tone. "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."

Then he hung up. When he phoned back six minutes later, his wife told him what the rest of the world already knew.

This was no ordinary hijacking. Terrorists had commandeered two other jetliners and rammed them into the World Trade Center. For the next 45 minutes, Deena Burnett and Tom's family in Minnesota would pray as Tom organized a passenger insurrection. Then they would share shock and grief as the plane nose-dived into a Pennsylvania field, killing all onboard.

But the family members would take pride and comfort that Tom and other passengers died as heroes. They overpowered the hijackers and prevented them from reaching their presumed target: the White House, the Capitol or CIA headquarters.

On the one-year anniversary of the attacks, Deena Burnett, who took notes as she talked with her husband, provides the fullest account yet of the events that day.

Late takeoff

It was 6 a.m. Pacific time, but Deena was already bustling about her kitchen. Deena was cooking breakfast for her twin 5-year-olds, Halley and Madison, and 3-year-old Anna Clare. Aimlessly, Deena flicked on the TV.

The airwaves were filled with the news that a plane had crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center. How strange, thought Deena, a former Delta Airlines flight attendant, shrugging it off as a bizarre accident. But moments later, when the newscast reported that a second plane had hit the south tower, she felt a rush of anxiety. Tom Burnett, 38, an executive of a medical device company, had been in New York on business and was due to fly home that day.

Tom had called his dad and mom, Beverly and Thomas E. Burnett Sr., in Bloomington, Minn., the evening before. He wasn't sure which flight he'd take home. He wound up getting a morning United flight out of Newark, N.J. Tom didn't know it as he took his seat in first class, but he was surrounded by terrorists.

Shortly after the plane pulled away from the gate at 8:01 a.m., the pilot informed passengers there would be a delay because of airport congestion. Flight 93 lifted off 41 minutes late, a delay that bought enough time for the passengers to learn of the terrorists' suicide missions.

The hijacking

Burnett's plane had been in the air for 45 minutes when he called his wife.

"Tom, are you OK?" she asked.

"No, I'm not. I'm on an airplane that has been hijacked." Minutes earlier, terrorists had burst into the cockpit and apparently killed the crew. Passengers were herded to the jet's rear.

Tom's conversation with Deena was so brief she was unable to tell him about the other planes. Her heart racing, she carried out his request, and called the FBI.

The FBI agent was understandably confused, thinking she was phoning about one of the planes that had hit the World Trade Center.

"No, no, this is a third plane," she insisted. They were interrupted by a new call from Tom.

This time, he told her the terrorists were in the cockpit.

"Tom, they are hijacking planes all up and down the East Coast." Deena told him. "They are taking them and hitting designated targets. They've already hit both towers of the World Trade Center."

Suddenly, Tom said, "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."

"What do you see?"

"Just a minute. I'm looking. I don't see anything. We're over a rural area. It's fields. I've gotta go."

Tom Burnett was a can-do, take-charge guy. When Tom hung up, Deena knew instantly he was going to go after the hijackers.

Deena's phone wouldn't stop ringing. A police officer arrived, but Deena refused to let him take over the phone calls from Tom.

When he called again, she told him a third plane had just hit the Pentagon.

Tom relayed the message to other passengers.

"They're talking about crashing this plane into the ground. We have to do something. I'm putting a plan together," he said.

Taking back the plane

Deena had begun relaying what she knew to Tom's family back in Bloomington - his parents and sisters Martha O'Brien and Mary Margaret Jurgens. When a third plane hit the Pentagon, Mary phoned Deena.

"I want you to know that I've talked to your brother since the Pentagon plane crashed," Deena said. "He's still alive."

At 9:54 Eastern time, Tom rang again.

"Hi, anything new?" he asked.


Tom took a long pause. "We're waiting until we're over a rural area. We're going to take back the airplane."

Deena knew it was their only chance. But she was overcome with fear.

"No!" she blurted, repeating the mantra she had learned for such scenarios as a flight attendant. "Sit down, be still, be quiet and don't draw attention to yourself!"

"Deena, if they're going to crash this plane into the ground, we're going to have to do something."

After a long silence, Deena told her husband: "I love you."

"Don't worry," he said confidently. "We're going to do something."

Within minutes of learning it was a suicide hijacking, Tom apparently connected with several burly, athletic passengers. Each was given a task, with other passengers apparently invited to help.

Deena hurried upstairs to take a quick shower. She was on the way back down when the police officer met her at the bottom of the stairs.

"I think I have bad news for you," he said.

Instantly, Deena turned to the TV and saw the reports of a plane crash in Pennsylvania.

"Is this Tom's plane?" she asked.

"Yes," he said.

Deena collapsed onto the sofa. For several minutes, she sat grasping the phone, hoping somehow her husband would call again.

In the cockpit

The tape from the flight's cockpit recorder was played in New Jersey last April for relatives of the plane's 45 victims, including Deena and the Burnett family. The recorder, Deena and others said, suggested the passengers used a food cart to ram their way into the cockpit.

As a struggle ensued, the recorder captured the voices of passengers frantically trying to get the plane's nose up.

Near the end of the tape, when Deena heard Tom barking directives, she was overcome by a bittersweet feeling: glad to hear him again, yet deeply saddened that it would be the last time.

She knew he had reached the cockpit. He had done his job.