NORTHFIELD, Minn. — North Iowa natives Tom and Beverly Burnett learned 10 years ago today that the airliner taking their son, Tom Burnett Jr., to California was one of the three commercial planes hijacked by terrorists.
“(9/11) definitely has changed our lives,” Beverly Burnett, a native of Manly, said from their home in Northfield, Minn.
Tom Jr. was a passenger on United Airlines flight 93, which flew out of New York headed for San Francisco but was diverted to Washington reportedly to crash into the White House or Capitol building.
Because of Tom Jr.’s efforts and those of others on the plane, the hijackers’ plans were thwarted, but the plane crashed in a field near Shanksville, Pa., killing everyone on board.
“Every day we remember 9/11,” Beverly said. “Tommy died in a very horrible way, as did over 3,000 people.”
Beverly, Tom Sr. — a native of Mason City — and their daughter-in-law, Deena, have listened to Tommy’s voice on the black box from the airplane.
Just 38 when he died, he called his wife four times from the plane, Beverly Burnett said.
“He said, ‘Don’t worry. We’re going to do something,’ ” Beverly related.
Tommy and three other passengers tried to take over the plane, she said.
“He had all intentions of coming home. He was not giving up,” she said. “We believe that if he would have had a few more minutes they would have been able to take that plane back.”
The loss of their son in the terrorist attacks “was the most devastating loss parents could imagine,” Beverly Burnett said.
“I told people there’s no way we could describe our grief,” she said. “But we thank everyone for their support.”
The last time they had talked to Tommy was the night before he flew out of New York City, when he called his parents from a hotel overlooking Times Square. He encouraged them to do more traveling, his mother recalled.
The Burnetts, whose religion was instrumental in helping them cope with the tragedy, have devoted themselves to doing everything they can to find the people who funded those terrorists and holding them accountable, said Beverly.
“We need to have our government let us have our day in court.”
The Burnetts have filed a lawsuit to that effect, which other families who lost loved ones on 9/11 have also signed onto.
“This lawsuit is about stopping the flow of money,” Beverly Burnett said.
The Burnetts have also written “many, many letters” to Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and members of Congress asking for their help.
“The politicians are afraid to get involved,” she said.
Tom Sr. has also been on a committee to help select a memorial at Shanksville, Pa., in memory of the people who died there.
The remains found at the site have been stored in a vault and are to be buried Monday, Beverly said.
Her son’s three daughters, who include 15-year-old twins and a 13-year-old, are doing well, she said. Their mother has since remarried.
Every penny sent to the Burnett family has been invested in scholarships, all of which are now endowed, Beverly said. They include scholarships at Tom Jr.’s high school, Thomas Jefferson High School in Bloomington, Minn.; St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn.; the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota; and Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., where he earned an M.B.A. degree.
The family has also established the Tom Burnett Family Foundation in his honor.
“We want Tom’s memory to inspire all of us to live life to the fullest,” Beverly Burnett said. “We also hope every American finds his or her way to fight the war on terrorism. We’re hoping people on this anniversary will pledge to do something hopeful, something kind, something bold and something that is right.”
Msgr. Joseph Slepicka, a former Mason City priest who is retired and now lives in Clear Lake, grew up with Tom Burnett Sr. in Mason City. They graduated together from Holy Family High School.
Slepicka said the loss of Tom Jr. has taken a physical toll on his old friend, who has had several strokes in the succeeding years.
Slepicka remains in close contact with the Burnett family and plans to attend 9/11 anniversary activities planned in the Twin Cities. Those activities include remembrances of Tommy in Bloomington, Minn., and at Carlson College.
Slepicka said he will never forget the day he got the call that Tommy had been killed.
“It’s hard to understand how people can be so evil-minded,” he said. “It makes you aware that we live in a world that is dangerous.”
The events of 9/11 give us a lot to reflect upon, Slepicka said.
“We have to examine ourselves and wonder where are we going with our country and how are we coming off in the rest of the world.”
Slepicka characterized Tom Jr. as a man with a great future ahead of him.
“The whole center of his life was trying to make life better for other people,” he said.