Alumnus hailed as hero


“Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.” -Helen Keller

Businessman Thomas E. Burnett, Jr., 38, boarded a morning flight in Newark, New Jersey on September 11, bound for his home in San Ramon, outside San Francisco. Leaving the East Coast early meant he wouldn’t lose an entire day to travel. A 1992 President/Key Executive (PKE) graduate of Pepperdine’s Graziadio School of Business and Management, Burnett was a doer, someone who liked to make things happen. As senior vice president and chief operating officer of Thoratec Corp., his job was to make things happen.

There is no way he could have known that United Flight 93 was to end in a fiery crash outside Pittsburgh, killing all 45 passengers and crew members. There was no way he could have known that what he would say and make happen in the final hour of his life, would come to be heralded as nothing short of heroism.

Commandeered by radical terrorists on a suicide mission, Flight 93 was forcefully diverted from its westward heading and a course was set for Washington, D.C. It was to be the last of four “airline missiles” whose combined effect would culminate in the most vulgar expression of inhumanity the nation had ever experienced. Already three such missiles had abruptly ended several thousand lives striking the twin 110-story World Trade Center Towers in New York and the Pentagon building in Washington.

In cell phone conversations with his wife, Deena, who was at home serving breakfast to their three children, Burnett learned of the tragedies in New York and Washington. In several subsequent calls to Deena, placed while huddling with other passengers in the rear section of the plane, Burnett revealed that he and several co-passengers were plotting to thwart the hijackers’ plans to wreak further terror upon the nation’s capital, possibly preventing a direct strike on the White House or Capitol Hill itself.

During Burnett’s fourth call to Deena, he told her a group of passengers was going to try to do something. It was the last time the couple spoke.

No one can ever know for sure what transpired aboard Flight 93. The plane lost altitude rapidly; its last radar blip appearing at 10:03 a.m., 25 minutes before its projected arrival in the skies above Washington. Flight 93 crashed in a sparsely populated area, killing no one on the ground.

Quoted in a Los Angeles Times article two days later on September 13, Deena Burnett said she is confident that her husband, Tom, and the others, foiled the terrorists’ plans. “We may never know how many people helped him or what they did,” she said. “But I know without a doubt that plane was bound for some landmark and they saved many, many more lives than were lost on that plane.”

Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) agrees. Murtha said he was convinced there was a struggle aboard Flight 93. “The target was the Capitol, the White House, the Pentagon, something significant,” he said. “Somebody made a heroic effort to keep this plane from hitting a populated area.”

In the aftermath of the tragedy, Thoratec President D. Keith Grossman called Burnett “an exceptionally bright man” who had a love of competition, a keen wit and a “very strong sense of right and wrong.”

In addition to his wife, Deena, Burnett is survived by three daughters-a 3-year-old, and twins who are 5. Their father didn’t set out to be a hero on September 11, 2001. But a hero is how he will always be remembered.

Jerry Derloshon, Director of Public Relations and News, Pepperdine University