When terrorists seized control of United Airlines Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001, Tom Burnett Jr. knew what to do. The Bloomington native had anticipated it 15 years before, when he wrote a paper on terrorism as a University of Minnesota student.
Our nation’s leaders, the young Burnett wrote, are too quick to negotiate: “They set the stage for further terrorism against the United States by not punishing the terrorists.”
Burnett and a handful of fellow passengers on Flight 93 became heroes by punishing the terrorists on that plane. Forcing their way into the cockpit, they prevented the Boeing 757 from reaching its destination — widely believed to be either the White House or the U.S. Capitol.
Now Burnett’s parents are donating that college paper, along with a mass of other mementos, artifacts, photos and documents, to the Minnesota Historical Society, the Bloomington Historical Society and the U.
Their goal: To keep alive the memory of their son and his actions. And to give future generations a clue about how heroes are formed.
“If we don’t make a decision to do this, all these things will end up in our daughter’s garage,” Beverly Burnett said this week, surveying the mementos of her son’s life that covered nearly every surface in the living room of her Eden Prairie home.
The mementos, by necessity, fall into two clearly defined groups. There are those from “Tommy’s” life: pictures of him swimming, goofing with friends, hugging his little sister; clippings and team photos from his days as quarterback for the Bloomington Jefferson Jaguars; awards and recognitions from his successful business career.
And there are those that exist because of his death and the manner in which it happened. A folded U.S. flag that flew over the Capitol he helped save; an Arthur Ashe Courage Award; programs from countless memorial services, and stacks of condolence cards from children across the nation, laboriously written and decorated on construction paper.
“He was brave and I was proud of him,” a child named Ahmed wrote to the Burnett family. Grant, age 10, wrote to Beverly and Tom Sr.: “I’m sorry that your son died. I hope you get over it jest [sic] like me. My dog died on my birthday.”
‘What a wonderful story to tell’
The family’s plan is to give the items from Burnett’s life to the Bloomington society and the U. State historians will take custody of the items relating to the 9/11 tragedy and its aftermath.
“It’s our hometown boy. We’re all so proud of him,” said Vonda Kelly, executive director and curator of the Bloomington Historical Society. “What a wonderful story to tell.
“We want everybody to see and not forget that horrible day,” she said. “People are so distracted, and they so easily forget.”
That’s exactly what his family is trying to prevent. On the day Flight 93 crashed outside Shanksville, Pa., Burnett was returning to his home in California from a trip to New York City to finalize a merger for the medical company he worked for. Worn out, eager to see his wife and three young daughters, he made the fateful decision to change his reservation to an earlier flight.
With his actions that day — along with several other passengers — Burnett changed history, his family believes. Tom Burnett Sr. pointed to the recent incident in which a group of vacationing American servicemen stopped a would-be terrorist on a French train.
“That incident on the train in France, it struck home,” he said. “Those guys went right at him.”
‘We’re gonna do something’
Beverly Burnett seems proudest of the leadership programs that have been created in her son’s honor. Donations that poured in from all across the world after 9/11 now fund a dozen annual leadership scholarships at the U, as well as at St. John’s University and Pepperdine University. Both high schools in Bloomington — Jefferson and Kennedy — also offer Burnett scholarships, and area schools observe an annual Tom Burnett Jr. Day of Service.
“It’s surprisingly good fun to give money away,” Tom Sr. said with a laugh. But even after 14 years, the loss still hurts.
“It breaks my heart, looking through so many things,” Beverly Burnett said, sobbing quietly. “We’ve been strong. We’ve talked to people. We’ve been open to interviews, because we want to tell his story.” Burnett’s younger sister, Mary Margaret Jurgens, said the family wants Tommy’s legacy to be sunshine rather than shadow.
“We want to create positive steps forward, rather than the sadness,” she said. “Whatever you’re involved in, don’t be apathetic. Take a stand.
“Those were Tom’s last words: ‘We’re gonna do something.’ ”