9/11 hero inspires many good education programs

| September 1, 2011 | 0 Comments

Beverly and Tom Burnett hold a photo of their son, Tom Jr., who died on Flight 93. A photo of Tom Jr.’s three daughters is on the ledge in the background. Photo by Jim Bovin / For The Catholic Spirit

For many Americans, the 9/11 tra­ge­dy that rocked our sense of safety is a sad memory with lasting changes to our formerly carefree travel routines.

But for the victims’ families, like Beverly and Tom Burnett Sr., “it’s like it happened yesterday.”

Tom Burnett Jr. was among the 40 passengers on United Airlines Flight 93, who fought 10 years ago for control of the plane from four terrorists who planned to crash in Washington, D.C. Al­though everyone died when the plane crashed in Shanks­ville, Pa., the passengers prevented a greater disaster.

Still touching lives

On a recent, sky-blue summer day at the Burnetts’ home in North­field where they attend St. Dominic, the two talked about their son, “Tommy,” and the upcoming anni­ver­­sary of his death.

Billie, the toy rat terrier puppy that Tom Jr. talked Tom Sr. into taking 10 years ago — for just a few weeks — still greets visitors to the Burnetts’ home. Her graying fur and waddling gait mimic the physically slowed-down Tom Sr. — who has had five small strokes, Beverly explained.

This year, the couple will not travel far to commemorate their son’s death. “We made several commitments to speak in the Twin Cities,” Tom said. On Sept. 10, they will participate in a halftime ceremony at the Minnesota Gopher football game to honor Tom and the others killed on 9/11 and the scholarship program set up by the Tom Burnett Family Foun­da­tion (www.TomBurnettFoundation.org).

“The funds that people sent to Deena [Tom Jr.’s wife] or Tom and I all went to scholarships,” Beverly said. “We knew that Tommy would want us to support education. That’s what he was all about.”

Besides the U of M, scholarship money goes to St. John’s University, Thomas Jefferson High School and John F. Kennedy High School, both in Bloomington, Pepperdine Uni­ver­sity in California and a citizenship program for middle school students, which started at Oak Grove School in Bloom­ing­ton.

On Sept. 11, the Burnetts will attend Mass in Bloom­ington with the Poor Clare Sisters, with whom Tom Jr. had a special relationship. On the day his plane went down, the sisters received a letter and a financial gift from him thanking the nuns for their prayers for his family, the Burnetts said.

Later, the Burnetts will go to Fort Snelling, and at 5 p.m. they will attend a ceremony in Bloomington honoring the foundation’s citizenship program.

Still seeking justice

Despite the pain of losing their son, the Burnetts acknowledged that many blessings have blossomed from the tragedy.

“It would have been easier for Tom and I to pull the shades,” Bev­erly said. “Tom didn’t want to. He knew he had to find the people responsible for killing his son, so he initiated the search for the attorney who has our case and we are hoping to get our day in court.”

Tom added, “We want to get at the underbelly of this and that is the money” and the people who did this to everyone. They said the death of Osama Bin Laden, which they cheered, was just the beginning.

Although the remains of people on Flight 93 found since the crash are supposed to be buried Sept. 11 in Pennsylvania, that does not comfort the Burnetts.

“Some of my son’s remains were found five miles from the crash site,” Beverly said. Remains from other passengers and their baggage are still on the crash site and have  been found up to 10 miles away, she added. “It makes me wake up at night,” wondering if people are pick­ing up mementos and keeping them, such as Tom’s wedding ring, which was Tom Sr.’s wedding ring and is inscribed with both of their wedding dates, Beverly said.

As for the costly memorial being built at the crash site, “My son would think that this is crazy,” she said. “We want a suitable memorial,” added Tom, who voted against the cur­rent design, which has created some controversy because of what he and others see as Islamic symbols incorporated into the design. That is another project that Tom is watching.

The Burnetts said they were not surprised by their son’s bravery 10 years ago.

“He was selfless,” Tom said. “He had an ability to make people feel good. He was concerned about them.”

Beverly said their son made his sisters, Martha and Mary, and parents watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” every Christmas. Family members always knew they would receive a book during the holiday because Tom Jr. wanted to educate them.

Books also preceded the trips that Tom Jr. planned with his dad to Korea and Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, and before sending his parents to Costa Rica. Although Beverly stayed home from the D-Day trip, she said Tom Jr. made her part of the trip by calling her from each site to tell her where they were and email her photos.

Beverly said her message to others is to “pray that we will never have another 9/11.”

“When you talk about 3,000 people being killed, you’re not talking about the entire story because all these people had mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters,” she said. “All these people were going to work; they were good citizens.”

Tom Sr. added, “Tom was always concerned about his children [twins Madison and Halley, now 15, and Anna Clare, now 13, who live with their mother and stepfather in Arkansas] that they would be good citizens. That was right at the top the message he would have is be good citizens.”

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Category: Remembering 9/11