I struggle to write about the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. It is such a monumental moment that I fear my feeble attempt to describe it would be like trying to replicate the Sistine Chapel with crayons in a spiral notebook. But like most Americans alive that day, I remember vividly where I was and how my chest tightened when I realized the enormity of what I was witnessing. That feeling returns on the occasions when I read and hear about the lives lost in the fight to protect this nation from its enemies. Each story is a model of selfless sacrifice for the freedom of our fellow Americans.
We learn about our war heroes in school: ordinary men and women who join a fight for the existence of a nation that affords a blanket of security and the opportunity to wake up each morning with a new day of freedom. They were farmers and militiamen who came together to defeat a great British army; they were young men sent overseas to fight tyranny and the worst evils in Europe and later the fight against Communism. More recently young men and women are in the heat of the desert, fighting a war that someone born 17 years ago today could join without ever not knowing our nation at war. These patriots, along with the our police, firefighters, and emergency responders put aside their safety so we can be safe going about our day-to-day lives.
On 9/11 we witnessed heroism of another type. People who woke up that Tuesday morning expecting a day like any other, just as we live on any Tuesday in 2018, but they were called upon to do the extraordinary. Below is a transcript of the final call Tom Burnett made to his wife, Deena. Tom was a passenger on United Flight 93.
Tom: Good. (a long quiet pause) We’re waiting until we’re over a rural area. We’re going to take back the airplane.
Deena: No! Sit down, be still, be quiet, and don’t draw attention to yourself! (The exact words taught to me by Delta Airlines Flight Attendant Training).
Tom: Deena! If they’re going to crash this plane into the ground, we’re going to have do something!
Deena: What about the authorities?
Tom: We can’t wait for the authorities. I don’t know what they could do anyway.
It’s up to us. I think we can do it.
Deena: What do you want me to do?
Tom: Pray, Deena, just pray.
Deena: (after a long pause) I love you.
Tom: Don’t worry, we’re going to do something.
He hung up
They may not have put on a uniform, but they fought the good fight. They did something. The heroes on that day didn’t make it home. The best of America doesn’t make it home. Our warriors leave their lives and souls on the battlefield. Their families mourn the loss of a life that could have been. We can try to remember, that although we commemorate September 11, our duty as Americans to pass on the torch of freedom is an unending cause.
We came together as a nation. Our strength and resolve reflecting the selfless heroism of Tom Burnett and his fellow passengers, the firefighters and police in New York City, and military men and women at the Pentagon. My husband and I both joined the military not long after that (separately, as we were years from even meeting). But we eventually settled back in our hometown, not far from the high school we both attended. It so happens to be the same high school as Tom Burnett. Our Post Office is named for him. There is a scholarship at the city in his honor.
When I drive by the school or drop a letter in the mail, I think of Tom Burnett. How the best of us don’t make it home. I only hope I can live a life worthy of his sacrifice, and of all who came before and since September 11, 2001, and that I pass on a model of honor, valor, and selflessness that will sustain this nation for future generations.