On September 11, 2001, native Southerner Deena Burnett was a full-time mother living in California with her husband Tom, raising their three daughters – 5-year-old twins and a 3-year-old. When the three girls bounded into her bedroom to wake her up at 6 a.m. on that Tuesday, she had no idea that, within the hour, she’d receive a phone call from her husband that would turn her world upside down.
If the name Tom Burnett sounds familiar, it’s for good reason. That morning, Tom was a passenger on hijacked United Airlines Flight 93, and he heroically joined forces with other passengers to fight back. Ultimately, it was Deena relaying information to Tom from the ground about the World Trade Center attacks that likely helped to prevent United 93 from reaching its intended target in Washington, D.C.
In the years since, Deena has co-authored a book titled Fighting Back: Living Life Beyond Ourselves, detailing her struggle to regain joy and purpose. Now back home in Arkansas after visiting the United 93 memorial in Pennsylvania for the 20th anniversary of September 11, Deena shares her story with us — recounting the days following 9/11, and how she found strength, hope, and resilience after tragedy.
Your life was turned upside down in mere hours. How do you begin rebuilding when your world came crashing down around you?
I think you have to find your motivation to keep going. You are in survival mode when your world crashes, regardless of what causes that crash – financial loss, divorce, a house fire. Whatever it might be, find a reason to keep going. It’s so easy to just stop.
For me, that reason was my children. I wanted to be able to set an example of behavior for them to both learn from and to follow. I think that’s the first step in putting your life back together; then you have to decide how you’re going to do that. For me, I knew that by just putting one foot in front of the other, getting up every day, deciding that I was going to do the things that mattered, continuing to take care of my kids, taking them to school, facing things I had to face – I had a daily checklist of tasks, so completing one task at a time allowed me to know I accomplished something, even though my world had been turned upside down.
You’re a living, breathing example of a steel magnolia. How did you find resilience on those incredibly tough days immediately following September 11?
Other than my children, what allowed me to keep going was my faith. I just always fell back on prayer. Prayer helped to bring peace and comfort. Going to church was extremely hard because in the beginning I’d just sit there and cry and cry and cry. But, the more often I went, the more accustomed I came to sitting in the presence of God and being vulnerable in that way. It became easier and a way of finding comfort.
In addition to that – other than prayer and church – would be finding a purpose that went beyond myself and my basic necessities, meaning yes, I had to support my family. Yes, I had to figure out how I was going to do that. But I felt like my purpose needed to be something greater than the needs of myself and my family. Volunteer work, doing something that helped someone else, making a difference in someone else’s life really gave me a sense of purpose and a feeling of carrying on Tom’s legacy and of making a difference. I wrote a book. That helped me think through a lot of what happened and helped me piece together how I felt about all of it. The book was never intended to be published; I wrote it to be able to clarify some of my thoughts.
You have shown remarkable courage in continuing to live your life, raising three beautiful daughters who are now young women. What have been some of the highlights of the last 20 years of your life?
My happy points have been being able to watch their milestones. It was so wonderful to be able to move back to Arkansas and be with my family. With Tom’s job, we always knew we would be moving and never be in one place for very long. That was stressful. To be able to come back and raise my daughters with my family’s involvement has absolutely been one of the highlights, and something I never expected to get to be able to do. They are so heavily involved in the lives of my children and myself.
It’s really wonderful to be a part of a community like Little Rock. It’s one of those cities where it’s small enough that you see the same people every day, but big enough to meet someone new every day.
On the more difficult days up to the present, what gets you through?
Knowing that I have been incredibly blessed by my family, by friends, by a wonderful community. I think about all the things I have. I truly, truly have focused on what I have left rather than what I’ve lost. I’ve said it over and over and over – when I’m having a bad day, I sit and remind myself of all the things I have that bring joy into my life and that I’m grateful for. It really does turn my frame of mind around.
What does life look like for you now?
Life is calming down tremendously now that the 20th anniversary is over, actually. For the past couple of years, I’ve been a caregiver to my elderly parents. They are now no longer at home, so that part of my daily routine has changed. Now I visit them rather than take care of them.
The girls are all grown and living out of state, so I have a lot more time now to really spend time doing things I’ve always wanted to do. I get up, take the dogs on a walk, read a book, spend time working on photo albums, and doing things around the house. I have time to travel, to have lunch with friends, and really enjoy my life at a slower pace. I can’t tell you how long I have looked forward to this. It’s such a blessing to be at this point in life – to look back on my life and know I’ve accomplished things I’ve wanted to do, but now, this time is just for me. I actually get up every morning and say the rosary and just enjoy living in peace and joy. I feel very blessed, incredibly blessed.
How do you keep Tom’s memory alive?
With the general public, just by sharing his story and doing interviews and telling stories over and over and over. Also by saying yes to some speaking opportunities as a way to keep his name, his actions, and his life in the forefront of people’s minds.
With my daughters, we continue to have conversations about what he would do if he were here, what he would think, and just making sure they understand a more full picture of who he was, a greater picture of the idea of who he was, not just based on stories in the news.
Twenty years on, what is the biggest lesson your loss has taught you?
Most of the lessons I’ve learned have been about myself. I am more capable than I ever thought I was. I am more adaptable and stronger than I ever thought I was. The true lesson is that when you need strength, God gives you the strength you need. When you need clarity, you need only pray for it.
As far as general lessons, I think I’ve learned that when you need help, it’s okay to receive it. It is extremely hard for me – in the beginning, I was so accustomed to being the one who helped other people, so it was humbling to have to receive help myself. It was a very hard lesson to learn, that it was okay to receive help. That goes from meals being brought to my house, people offering to babysit, people sending me money to help pay bills when I couldn’t pay them myself – it was very, very humbling. That is a huge lesson that I learned: It’s okay to accept help when you need it.
Also, I learned a lot about the kindness of other people. My goodness, we really are all the same. We want love, we want acceptance, we want joy. We’re all looking for the same thing. It doesn’t matter what our backgrounds are, what our experiences are – we are all looking for love and acceptance, and I found that in the kindness of people I otherwise would never have met.
Thank you for sharing your story, Deena. All photography submitted by Deena Burnett Bailey.
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