Thursday, September 11, 2014

Courage Under Fire, a 911 Hero by Thomas Edward Burnett Sr.

This 9/11 story is of the hero—a Catholic and daily communicant-- who tried to take back the plane from terrorist before it crashed in PA.  It is shared through the eyes of his loving father and was originally published exclusively in  "Amazing Grace for Families." 

Looking down over the Omaha beaches of Normandy, France, my son, Thomas Jr. pointed to the stretch of land which is now a cemetery holding more than 9,000 WWII American soldiers.  “That’s where some of the fiercest fighting took place,” he explained.  
My son had planned this trip of a lifetime with me. As a history buff, he was enamored with the heroism of the men who stormed the beaches at Normandy over sixty years ago on what become known as D-Day.  The operation remains the largest invasion from sea to land in history; involving close to three million troops crossing the English Channel to take back France from German occupation. It was a bold and bloody mission in which rapid enemy fire failed to halt these heroic men from marching forward into almost certain death--all in the name of freedom.

 Although I knew well of the history, I listened intently as my son explained the battle.  “Here they were, coming in under all that fire,” he said with an otherworldly expression on his face.  Then he looked thoughtful for a moment.  “I wonder if I would have had the courage to come onto that beach under such a hail of fire.”   I said nothing.  Tom was deep in thought.  But I knew my son would never lack for courage.  He was thoughtful and loving and never backed down in the face of adversity.
Just a few months later, on September 11, 2001, my wife Beverly and I would be desperately praying for our courageous son. After seeing the World Trade Center Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington D.C. get struck by terrorist-commanded planes, Tom’s wife, Deena called to tell us that Tom was on flight 93 from New York. He was returning to California from a business trip.  When Islamic terrorists had taken over the plane, he called his wife.    “Are you okay?” she had asked.
“No, I’m not,” he reported.  “I’m on a plane that has been hijacked.”  The crew had been killed and a passenger knifed.  The rest of the passengers were herded to the back of the plane.  Tom became determined to take back the plane before the hijackers could reach their target, later presumed to be Washington, D.C.   He directed Deena to call the FBI and police.
Tom Burnett Jr.
We sat by the phone and television; shocked by the surreal plot our own dear son was entangled in.  We prayed unceasingly, waiting frantically for word from Deena. Both the FBI and the police were at her house within minutes to monitor Tom’s calls.  He would call her a total of four times, keeping her posted and asking for prayers.
When Tom called again to report that the knifed passenger was dead, Deena told him about the other hijacked planes hitting buildings in New York and Washington.  "Oh my God, it's a suicide mission," she heard him tell others.   Tom noticed the plane turn and head south.  “We’re over a rural area,” he told Deena. “It’s fields, I’ve gotta go.”
Minutes later, he called again. "They're talking about crashing this plane into the ground. We have to do something. I'm putting a plan together." The last time he phoned Tom announced: "We're going to take back the plane," he said. "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."
"What do you want me to do?" Deena had asked.
"Pray, Deena," said Tom. "Just pray."  Then his last words were: “We’re going to do something.”
Moments later, the plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.  When we listened to the black box recordings, Tom’s voice could be heard barking commands as they attempted to take back the plane.  Tom was a tall, strong, former football player.  His leadership skills led him to become chief operating officer of his company. I believe that if he had not been on the plane that day, the terrorists would have killed a lot of other people. 
Tom’s success in life went deeper than anything you could put on a score card.  He was a devoted husband, father and son, who put God at the center of everything he did.  In recent years before he died, Tom had given up his lunch hour to attend daily Mass. His desire was to discern God’s will and always follow it. Surely, God led him during his last moments in this world.
My wife Beverly and I are still grieving our son’s loss.  We always will.  But we have drawn on Tom’s courage and our faith in God to help us through.  We will never put our son behind us.  Sometimes I look up to the sky and find strength in the knowledge that our son is in heaven and we will see him again some day.  He did his best and it seems certain that Tom prevented a worse loss of life. He was truly a man of courage.
 Thomas Edward Burnett and his wife Beverly reside in Minnesota.  He graduated from the University of Minnesota and retired from Richfield Public Schools after thirty years of teaching.
For more inspiration, check out Big Hearted: Inspiring Stories From Everyday Families. Your children will laugh while learning big spiritual lessons with Dear God, I Don't Get It! and Dear God, You Can't Be Serious. 

                 Follow Patti at Twitter and like her Facebook pages at Dear God Books,  Big Hearted Families and  Catholic News & Inspiration on Facebook.

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