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U.S. News
Deena Burnett: Widow of Flight 93 victim

Wednesday, September 11, 2002

By Steve Levin, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Deena Burnett will take her three daughters to school this morning, attend Mass, pick them up in the afternoon and then spend the rest of the day at home.

No memorials. No speeches. No interviews.

While most of the country will be awash in reliving 9/11, Burnett wants to keep moving forward as she has done in the year since her husband, Thomas E. Burnett Jr., a passenger on United Flight 93, died in the crash near Shanksville, Somerset County.

But it's not as if she has just set it aside.

She and her in-laws are lead plaintiffs in the trillion-dollar suit filed last month against more than 80 defendants, including the governments of Saudi Arabia and Sudan; Osama bin Laden; seven banks; Islamic charitable foundations; Saudi bin Laden Group; and three Saudi princes.

Burnett also has filed a wrongful-death suit against United Airlines, 10 other carriers that fly out of Newark Airport, a security company and Boeing, seeking unspecified damages.

She moved from California to Arkansas, started a foundation, has nearly completed a book and crossed the country speaking at community gatherings and on radio and TV about her husband, her life and her faith.

"I think that I've found that I am more driven than I was on September 10th" of last year, Burnett said. "I have more of an urgency and immediacy to help other people."

"I have certain issues that I would like to see resolved, like airline safety and security. And I am really dedicated to furthering the war on terrorism."

Her message has been one of "doing what's right every day." While her husband and other passengers aboard Flight 93 have been lionized for their decision to fight the hijackers for control of the doomed plane, Deena Burnett said people each day face decisions requiring courage and strength.

She had to learn that, too.Until she moved in late June from San Ramon, Calif., to Little Rock, Ark., she regularly was recognized on the street, where "everyone seemed to know so much about me and I knew nothing about them." At first, she wasn't sure how to handle the attention, but came to realize she was a touchstone for people's uncertainties about the future.

Quickly, she saw how much she had depended on her husband for emotional and financial support. Decisions formerly his were now hers. As time passed, she said, "I have been able to identify certain thoughts, emotions and feelings he must have felt when making some decisions for our family."

Even church was a challenge. After 9/11, grief overtook her when she attended services. The stillness in the midst of worship seemed to magnify the void in her life.

But eventually, her prayer life brought her peace rather than pain.

"I came to find that it gave me a sense of strength and comfort that I couldn't find elsewhere," she said. "I have always felt strength comes only from the presence of God, and prayer affords me that."

Most of her decisions remain rooted in what's best for her daughters, 6-year-old twins Madison and Halle, and Anna Clare, 4. They're the reason she declined an invitation to attend President Bush's address to Congress a week after the attacks; she didn't want to leave them alone so soon after their father's death.

But they're also why she speaks publicly -- and never charges a fee.

"It brings great honor to my husband to keep his story in the forefront," she said. "I want to teach [her daughters] the importance of always choosing to do right, and using their father as an example."

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