“This is Not my Life. My Life is Quiet, Suburban, and Ordinary.”
That’s the thought that went through Deena Burnett’s mind the morning of September 11, 2001, when her husband died an American hero.
I arrive to interview Deena Burnett Bailey about five minutes early.
She’s not home, so I wait at the entrance of her Little Rock, Arkansas, gated community. Moments later, Deena pulls up in a silver SUV, a miniature poodle sitting on her lap. She motions me to follow her back to the house, through a lovely neighborhood reminiscent of a golf course: swaths of green lawn split by ponds and a wide creek. I pull into the driveway and walk up the stairs and under a tall archway to the front door. The house, a five-bedroom affair too large to be called unassuming, blends in with the other stately brick homes in the community. Deena laughingly remembers that when they first moved here from San Ramon nine years ago, her three daughters told schoolmates that they lived “in a mansion.”
Deena greets me at the door, brushing near shoulder–length blond hair from her face. She is 47, tanned, and fit, wearing a blue summer dress. She apologizes for being out when I arrived: She was driving her kids to sewing class. As she shows me around the house, she also apologizes for a nonexistent mess, in the way that people who keep neat homes often do. Even her daughters’ rooms are impeccably neat, though one of their beds is home to an enormous pink plush puppy dog.
Above the stairs, I see a painting of Deena with her daughters. The girls are very young in the portrait; I recognize it from the back cover of Fighting Back, the memoir Deena published in 2006. In the living room are more up-to-date pictures of the girls. The twins, Halley and Madison, are now 15, going into their sophomore year of high school; Anna Clare, is 13, going into eighth grade. They couldn’t be more all-American: Halley plays basketball, Madison is involved in dance and pom-pom, and Anna Clare plays just about any sport you can think of. Their athletic disposition makes sense, as Deena played basketball and softball, and ran track growing up, and their father, Tom Burnett, was a quarterback who received a football scholarship to Saint John’s University in his home state of Minnesota, before he became an executive at the Pleasanton-based medical device company Thoratec.
Deena’s home seems utterly normal for affluent suburbia. This was all she ever planned to be, a stay-at-home mom who takes care of her kids and shares conversations with her loving husband over home-cooked dinners.
Deena’s life changed forever the morning of September 11, 2001. Specifically, at 6:27 a.m., when her cell phone rang, interrupting her as she cooked breakfast for her daughters. On the line was Tom, who was due back later that day from a business trip in New York. He was calling from one of the credit card–enabled phones you used to find in the back of airplane seats, calling to tell her his plane was being hijacked, that a passenger had been stabbed. She told him what she’d seen on the morning news, that there had been other hijackings, that terrorists had taken two planes and crashed them into the World Trade Center.
Deena called 911. Police, firefighters, paramedics, and neighbors showed up at her house. Tom called back for updates several times in the next hour. Deena told him a third plane had crashed, this one into the Pentagon. She heard Tom pass the news along to other passengers. Deena, a former flight attendant, recalled her training and told her husband, “Sit down. Be still. Be quiet. Don’t draw attention to yourself.” Tom didn’t listen. The last thing he said to his wife was, “We’re going to do something.”
Through all this time, Deena says now, even when Tom vowed to take action, she wasn’t scared. Tom had been calm and collected on the phone, as he always was. She thought he could probably handle the situation. As a person of abiding faith, she believed God would watch over her husband. Never once did she think that things wouldn’t be OK.
Another hour passed. She’d been told that FBI agents were coming to interview her, so she went upstairs to take a shower. She came back downstairs at 9 a.m., and she saw a look on a police officer’s face. A look she’ll never forget.
“I turned toward the TV and saw that there had been another plane crash,” she says now, her eyes watering at that memory. “And I looked back at him and I said, ‘Was that Tom’s plane?’ And he goes, ‘I think so.’ ”
Tom Burnett and several other passengers on United Flight 93 had stormed the cockpit, foiling the hijackers’ plan to crash the plane into the White House. Instead, it went down in a Pennsylvania field. No one survived.
Ten years after tom was killed, at age 38, Deena keeps mementos of her late husband in her home’s library, just to the left of the front door. A wall of shelves is stocked with portraits of Tom; photos of Deena and her daughters at the White House, with President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush; and a number of American flags folded in military triangles and framed in glass. Among them is a flag that flew over the U.S. Capitol in honor of Tom, which former Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone promised to Deena just two weeks before he died, also in a plane crash. Deena doesn’t need to visit this room to be reminded of Tom; she sees him in her daughters.
“Anna Clare has his sense of humor, and she will often hear me say, ‘Oh, my goodness, your dad would have said the same thing,’ ” Deena says. “Halley looks more like me, but she has his eyes, and there are times when she has expressions that make me [choke up].”
Deena tells me that while she’s driving, she’ll occasionally hear one of those patriotic 9/11 country songs, and she’ll feel her eyes begin to well up. I’m not sure what to expect from this interview; in old television appearances I’ve seen, she is tear stricken. Even now, talking with me, she does tear up when she remembers the morning of 9/11. For the most part, however, I find her remarkably composed.
It makes sense that Deena is a pro when it comes to interviews: She says she’s done “thousands” of them, and that may not be an exaggeration. For five years after Tom’s death, she wasn’t just reminded of his memory: She worked as a very public advocate for its preservation. Neighbors linked their arms in front of her San Ramon home all day on September 11 to shield her from a horde of media, but by the next morning, she’d begun to accept interview requests. As she says in her book, a saying of Tom’s inspired her: “You can be a victim, or you can be a victor.”
She appeared on Good Morning America, The Today Show, Dateline, and countless other programs. Then California Governor Gray Davis asked her to speak at the State Capitol a month after 9/11 as part of the state’s official Day of Remembrance. She agreed, giving a speech before thousands of people and receiving a standing ovation. Afterward, the governor told her it was a “wonderful, wonderful speech,” and the mother of another United 93 victim told her, “You said what we wanted to say but couldn’t find the words.” A little girl asked for her autograph. Deena recalls thinking, Doesn’t she know I’m nobody special?
As it turned out, a lot of people thought this native of Halley, Arkansas, a communications major at Northeast Louisiana University, former flight attendant, stay-at-home mother of three, was somebody special. She soon was bombarded with offers for speaking engagements. She did as many as she could fit into her schedule. Overnight, she’d been transformed into a national celebrity, a kind of crusader on a mission to ensure that Tom’s principled life, his patriotic sacrifice, would not be forgotten. She led the charge to have the cockpit recording from Flight 93 made available to the victims’ families, a request that the FBI ultimately granted. She wrote a memoir. She started a foundation in Tom’s honor. Several times, she was asked to run for office.
“I remember [telling the girls] about being asked to run for lieutenant governor of the state of Arkansas. And one of them said, ‘Does that come with a limousine?’ ” She laughs at the memory. When she decided not to run, “They all three said, ‘You mean to tell me you turned down a paying job?’ ”
In many ways, Deena still uses Tom’s values to help guide her life: his perseverance (he was born prematurely and given last rites twice); his faith in God (Deena says now that while she had many friends in both San Ramon and Little Rock who helped her through her grief, her biggest comfort was “being able to sit and pray”); his courage and patriotism; and most importantly, his devotion to family. Tom had told her that in the event something happened to him, she should move back to Arkansas to be closer to her parents, which she did in 2002. Although she was dedicated to working toward promoting Tom’s values and preserving his memory, she knew that he would want her focused on raising the girls, so about five years ago, she ceased accepting public speaking appearances.
“The girls are at an age where I just have to be there,” she says. “I don’t want to miss what they do, and I feel like what they’re doing is more important right now than my traveling to speak. And I think that’s the way Tom would want it.”
Another thing that Tom had told her he wanted, in the event that something happened to him, was for her to get remarried—which she would not have considered were it not for his insistence.
“I almost felt obligated to do it based on conversations that Tom and I had,” she says. “That may sound odd, but he felt very strongly about his children being raised in a two-parent home, and he made that very clear, more than once, that if anything happened to him, he not only wanted me to remarry, but would expect me to.”
In early 2004, a friend introduced her to Rodney Bailey, a divorced Little Rock insurance agent with a teenage son, Tanner (now a college baseball player at Ole Miss).
Naturally, there were complications. On their first date, when Rodney began to ask questions about her previous husband, her answers came haltingly: Her husband had been killed … he’d died on 9/11 … he was Tom Burnett, from United Flight 93.
“And [Rodney’s] eyes got tears in them,” Deena says. “And he said, ‘Your husband was a hero.’ And it touched my heart.”
Although the response endeared him to her, she initially turned down a second date. She quickly relented, though, and asked him to a charity ball. He agreed, finding a tuxedo on extremely short notice, and when he came to pick her up, Madison ran up to the door and asked if he was her “new daddy.”
“Of course, I’m like, ‘No, he is not gonna be your new daddy, and please don’t call him that,’ ” Deena recalls. “He looked down and he goes, ‘I promise I’ll bring her back, and I won’t keep her for very long.’ ”
Rodney was the first man Deena went out on a date with after Tom, and she brought him into the family’s life slowly. He recalls that at first they would often meet somewhere other than her house. They dated for two years, and were married in 2006. Despite Madison’s initial blithe acceptance, the girls felt some trepidation.
“It was very hard,” Anna Clare says. “We all felt insulted that our mom was even thinking about marrying another guy. And it took a while for us to get used to it.”
The family now appears to get along well—as well as any household with three teenagers. Deena, who grew up with stepparents on both sides, believes that, if anything, her family functions better than the average postdivorce family. She gives a lot of credit to Rodney for the open approach he takes with the children and the family’s history.
“He’s very open to allowing me to talk about Tom because of the girls,” she says. “It comes up frequently. He is very good at kind of incorporating the 9/11 stories and the Tom stories and the Burnett family and all of it into the life we have together. He’s never been outwardly intimidated by it.”
“There are still some times when the girls reflect on their dad and what happened,” Rodney says. “There are still activities we do that trigger the memories of their dad. It’s tough to compete with. … It’s sad, but I just try to be supportive when it happens.”
For Rodney, the toughest adjustment may be less about 9/11 and more about finding himself in a house with four women.
“It’s a learning process for me being around girls,” he says. “I’m getting more comfortable. They’re strong willed just like their mother and, I assume, their father.”
The loss of a father is a trauma that’s impossible to blot out of one’s mind in any circumstance. Each of the girls reacted differently: Madison never showed much anger, but she pined for a new daddy, a return to normalcy; Halley bottled up her emotions, crying in private; Anna Clare was tremendously angry and prone to publicly screaming at her mother.
“Years later, she was able to express that she thought I killed her father, that I made him get on that plane,” Deena says.
With help from a counselor, Deena was able to overcome Anna Clare’s anger. Meanwhile, she chose to tackle her grief in public, head on. Given that the family’s personal tragedy was intertwined with a turning point in history, avoiding the media’s gaze would have been difficult.
“We learned that was part of our life now,” Deena says. “There was pre–9/11; there’s post–9/11, and part of it was, this is something that will go down in history, and it’s never going to be forgotten.”
This dynamic plays out in many ways. For example, the girls, who were ages five and three when their father died, grew up surrounded by tape recorders, television cameras, and notepads. They know that this isn’t ordinary, that they never really experienced ordinary.
“It’s weird to think about being normal, I guess, as if this had never happened,” Madison says. “I’d say that having people know about it and having them talk to you about it or try to ask you about it—I think that’s the hard part.”
With something as much a part of the cultural fabric as 9/11, there are often occasions for the girls to be put on the spot. Last year, the twins’ freshman history teacher e-mailed Deena to tell her that he planned to spend a class period discussing the attacks. He agreed to allow the girls to leave class while he showed a video on the subject, but it was still a difficult moment for them.
“Everyone was staring when I left my classroom. You could just feel the sympathy in the air,” Halley says.
The girls have persevered, though, thanks in large part to their mother’s example. Deena has always been very conscious that she is an example for her daughters.
“I realized early on that I needed to be a role model for them,” she says. “Whenever I would find myself at a crossroads of making a decision, I would ask myself, What would I want my daughter to do?”
She cites other 9/11 kids who have had problems with drugs and teen pregnancies, and been unable to finish school, as evidence that her biggest success has been creating a placid (relative to the circumstances) home life for her children. “They could have gone in any direction, and considering how some of these 9/11 kids have turned out, I have to tell you, mine are great.”
She’s been able to hold things together so well in part because of her rock-solid faith. A personally devastating tragedy can either shake faith or affirm it. Deena remembers that, for more than a year before his death, Tom had been attending daily mass at a church near his office, and that he believed God had a message for him. She saw Tom’s role in the events of 9/11 as the realization of that message.
“I really believe that [losing Tom] was part of God’s plan,” she says. “I can’t explain it any other way. Tom and I believed that something was going to happen in our lives. We didn’t know what it was. He explained it by saying that he knew it was going to impact a great deal of people.”
Perhaps because of her faith, she shows amazingly little anger or vindictiveness in her writing and interviews. For the most part, she has used the events to help her focus on the importance of day-to-day interactions with loved ones.
“It has made me enjoy moments much more, knowing that [something] can be taken away from you at any moment,” she says. “It’s made me more aware of my relationships with other people, and cherishing them and fostering them. Every time I say good-bye to someone, I wonder if it’s the last time.”
Even the killing of Osama bin Laden in May was a moment for reflection more than celebration.
“It actually provided much more closure than I had expected it to,” she says. “Only because, with Tom being killed on September 11, there were a lot of different tentacles, if you will, that were just loose ended. And that was one of them. And so it closed that part of it.”
Ticking off her typical daily schedule, Deena sounds like any other housewife. She’s up early in the morning to get her kids ready for school. She drops them off, gets coffee, goes to the gym, and spends her late morning and early afternoon either running errands or engaged in volunteer work for a number of charities, such as the 20th Century Club, a Little Rock organization that provides housing for cancer patients. In the afternoon, she shuttles the kids from one sport or activity to another, then cooks dinner for the family.
Even circumstances that invoke Tom’s memory have an air of normalcy to them: This month, on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Deena and her daughters will attend a rededication service at Pepperdine University, where Tom received his MBA, which has a memorial garden dedicated to him. Just two months after Tom’s death, the school promised full-tuition scholarships to all three of the girls. They talk about the prospect with a mix of fear that they’ll come up short of the admission criteria and giggling anticipation of spending four years on the beach in Malibu. For her part, Deena says, “Being the mom I am, I’m beginning to think [Malibu is] a long ways away. I didn’t know we’d be living in Arkansas at that time.”
These reactions and the life that Deena and her family now live seem ordinary. Typical. Almost boring. In other words, exactly what Deena always wanted.
For a list of 9/11 memorial events around the East Bay, click here.