Tom Burnett attended church every Sunday for a year before his death.
He couldn’t shake a sense of foreboding, his wife would later say. But he could never have imagined he would become a national hero on one of America’s darkest days.
In 2001, Tom was 38 years old and living in San Ramon, California with his wife and three daughters.
But before graduating college and moving to the west coast, Tom spent much of his youth in Minnesota. He was born in Bloomington on May 29, 1963.
In high school he played quarterback and led Thomas Jefferson Senior High to an appearance in the state championship game. Tom later played football for Saint John’s University, where he studied economics.
He eventually transferred to the University of Minnesota to study business at the Carlson School of Management.
Tom found work with a medical devices company in California. He worked his way up the corporate ladder and was named senior vice president and chief operating officer with the company in 1999.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, Tom boarded United Airlines Flight 93 in New Jersey.
45 minutes into the flight, Tom’s wife in California received a phone call. Tom told her from his cell phone on the flight that a group of men were taking control of the plane. He said the men had knives and might have already stabbed someone. And they claimed to have a bomb.
Tom asked his wife to turn on the television and see if there was any coverage of any events on the news, and the two hung up.
When Tom called his wife back, she told him that the World Trade Center in New York City had been attacked.
“They’re talking about crashing this plane,” Tom told his wife. “Oh my God. It’s a suicide mission.”
Tom’s wife Deena had once trained to be a flight attendant and urged her husband to stay calm and not draw any attention to himself.
But on his final phone call with his wife, Tom said that he and three other men – fellow passengers Mark Bingham, Todd Beamer and Jeremy Glick – were planning a strategy to re-take control of the airplane from the hijackers.
He ended the call by telling his wife, “don’t worry, we’re going to do something.”
Flight 93 crashed into a field in Pennsylvania a few minutes later at 10:13 AM.
While the hijacker’s specific target is not definitively known, The 9/11 Commission Report cited the actions of the flight’s crew and passengers in preventing the destruction of either the White House or the United States Capitol building.
On the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the Tom Burnett Jr. Remember Award was founded. It is given out every year to citizens who demonstrate leadership, selflessness, and a commitment to others.
That same year, the Heroes Garden was dedicated on the campus of Pepperdine University in California, where Tom attended graduate school.
The inscription by Deena at the entrance to the plaza reads:
“Heroes can give their lives all at one time, or they can give a little each day.”
Thomas E. Burnett, Jr. is buried at Fort Snelling National Cemetery.