For Flight 93 hero's parents, a sense of justice at long last

  • Article by: RICHARD MERYHEW , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 3, 2011 - 7:09 AM

The death of Osama bin Laden brings a bit of relief, but little comfort to the parents of a Flight 93 hero.

NORTHFIELD, MINN. - Tom Burnett didn't cheer when his wife delivered the remarkable news shortly after he awoke Monday morning.

But as he walked to the front door to grab his newspaper, the 82-year-old retired English teacher was quietly thinking what much of America was thinking after learning that Osama bin Laden was dead:

"Finally," he said to himself. "Finally, we got that guy."

His subdued reaction, a decade in the making, was a sharp contrast to the horror of that sunny September morning in 2001 when Burnett and his wife, Beverly, learned that their only son, Tom Burnett Jr., 38, was a passenger on a jetliner that had been hijacked by terrorists shortly after takeoff from Newark, N.J.

In the chaos of the flight that followed, Burnett Jr., a Bloomington native, husband and father who was headed home to California after a business trip, helped organize a passenger revolt to storm the cockpit and take control of the plane.

The fight ended when United Flight 93 crashed to earth in a Pennsylvania farm field, killing Burnett and 39 passengers and crew members.

"It seems like yesterday and it seems like forever," Beverly Burnett said Monday at the couple's Northfield townhouse. "Some days, when we wake up, it's the same thing -- we're thinking about Tom and getting the news, which was horrible."

'I salute them'

This time, the news carried a sense of justice.

As the Burnetts tried Monday to learn details of the U.S. raid on Bin Laden's compound, they were overwhelmed by phone calls from news organizations, relatives and friends.

One came from a radio station in Pittsburgh. The disc jockey wanted an on-air interview with Tom Burnett Sr.

Another came from Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who promised the family she would do what she could to help pursue justice through the courts.

Not long after the attacks, families of many of the victims filed a $1 trillion lawsuit against the Saudi royal family and several Saudi banks and charities for the financing of Bin Laden's Al-Qaida terrorist network.

The families still await a judge's decision on whether the case should be tried, Beverly Burnett said.

That frustration, along with the U.S. government's inability to find and capture Bin Laden and many other terrorists over the years, has discouraged them.

Tom Burnett, who has suffered several strokes over the past decade, said he has been extremely disappointed by what he perceives as a "soft" stance on the war by the Obama administration.

Still, he added, he never gave up hope that Bin Laden would be captured or killed. That U.S. troops were responsible for getting it done fills him with pride.

"I salute them," he said of the Navy SEALs who hunted down Bin Laden. "American troops -- love it! Yes, it was important to me because it was America. American troops -- great!"

He feels a sense of relief, too, though it does little to ease his family's deep and decade-old heartache.

Not a day goes by, Beverly Burnett said, when she doesn't look to the sky and see a plane and think of her son or the terror of that morning.

"We will probably visualize that the rest of our lives," she said.

She said she can see her son boarding Flight 93, sitting in his first-class seat, drinking orange juice or water and looking at the men who ultimately hijacked the plane. She sees, too, the struggle that followed. Although much of what transpired in those final minutes will never be known, a cockpit voice recording heard by family members clearly showed that Tom Burnett Jr. helped lead the fight. It is believed the hijackers had planned to steer the plane, originally headed to the West Coast, into a building or monument in Washington, D.C.

"Sometimes," she said, "we can't talk about it, it's just too much. But nothing will ever bring our son back. Nothing.

"I will never understand why these terrorists -- Islamic terrorists -- wanted to kill us and kill my son. I will never understand that as long as I live."

But, she added, "I honestly believe it's the first good news and first step in getting the rest of 'em.

"He was the big guy. But there are a lot more. And we have to be very alert. There are still people out there that want to kill us."

Richard Meryhew • 612-673-4425

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