Before Tom Burnett Jr. was posthumously honored at the Flight 93 National Memorial near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, for his role in helping to retake the fourth aircraft involved in the September 11 attacks, Clear Lake priest Monsignor Joseph Slepicka knew him as a kid who was equal parts competitive and compassionate — even toward total strangers.
Slepicka grew up with Burnett's father, Tom Sr., in Mason City. According to the now 92-year-old retired Catholic priest, the elder Burnett's family lived on the North End of town and went to Holy Family Catholic Church of Epiphany Parish. The two became good friends but were separated for a number of years as Slepicka went into the priesthood and Tom Sr. joined the Army.
After that, the two didn't really see each other again until Slepicka said he was assigned to work in Manly, about 10 miles north of Mason City.
"That first Christmas I got a knock at the door and here’s Tom, Tom Burnett. He came over to see me and we got back together," Slepicka said.
From that time on, Slepicka said that he and Tom Sr. would go hunting and fishing on a regular basis even though the Burnett family lived in Minnesota. When Tom Jr., or "Tommy," as Slepicka remembers him, got to be about 12, he joined his dad and the priest on those trips.
"He always liked to be competitive. If I caught a big fish, he’d try to catch a bigger one," Slepicka said.
Slepicka recalled that Tommy's dad wanted him to join up with the Air Force, as Tom's brother had flown during World War II and in Korea, but things didn't shake out that way. Tommy tried it, after getting out of college, but decided to come home.
Tommy ended up going the business route and landed with the California-based Thoratec Corporation, which makes medical devices for heart-related issues. Despite the demands of such a company, he would still find time to go on trips with his father and Slepicka.
"The kind of a person Tom was, we’d gone hunting so much that his dad finally bought a place up in Wisconsin and while we were up hunting there was a fellow who had heart problems and so Tommy went over to see if there was anything he could do for him," Slepicka said.
"We're going to do something"
On Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, Tom Jr. planned to return home to San Roman, California after a business trip for Thoratec.
According to NPR reporting from June 2004, United Flight 93 took off from Newark, New Jersey around 8:42 a.m. local time. The last "normal contact" with the Federal Aviation Administration came at about 9:28 a.m. A minute later, screaming could be heard over the transmission. By 9:34 a.m., two of the four hijacked planes had crashed and the United hijackers were threatening that they had a bomb on the flight. At 9:41 a.m., a control center in Cleveland lost the signal for Flight 93 but was still able to track the plane as it turned east and then south possibly toward either the U.S. Capitol Building or the White House.
Sometime around 9:27 a.m., Burnett first started making calls to his wife, Deena, about the hijacking. Over the course of several calls, during which he learned about the other attacks, Tommy came to the realization that the hijackers were on a suicide mission (per a Guardian story from 2001). From a 2004 San Francisco Gate story, Burnett's final call, around 9:54 a.m., ended with him saying: "Don't worry, we're going to do something."
At 10:03 a.m., Flight 93 crashed in in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after passengers, including Tommy, fought to regain control of the plane. Beverly, Tom Sr. and their daughter-in-law, Deena, have listened to the black box from the flight and heard Tommy’s voice on the recording.
"The day of 9/11, I was in Mason City for some reason and I stopped at the high school (Newman Catholic) to get something. When I walked into the office, the radio was on at the time and they were talking about the crash in Shanksville," Slepicka said.
By the time he made it home, the light on his phone was flashing. One of Burnett's sisters had called to tell Slepicka that Tom Jr. had been on Flight 93. Without thinking twice, Slepicka said he told Tom Jr.'s sister, Mary Margaret, that he would be up to Bloomington the next morning to help plan the funeral. Beyond that, he doesn't remember much else about the conversation.
"I don’t know that I said too much. It was just such a shock to everybody. What do you say?"
In May 2002, Tommy was laid to rest at Fort Snelling National Cemetery near the Twin Cities. Per a Minnesota Public Radio story from that time, a small group of people dedicated a white oak tree in Tommy's honor. At the base of it is a rock with a verse from the 15th chapter of the Gospel of John: "There is no greater love than to lay down one's life for one's friends."
Since that time, he has been honored by his high school, the United States Postal Service and the Mall of America with a memorial, which Mary Margaret helped make possible, that meant to show the cockpit door that Tommy helped break into.
Slepicka said he continues to keep in regular contact with the Burnett family. About twice a month, he'll talk with both of Tom's parents, who are in their nineties, over the phone.
"They’ve accepted it and everything else, but on the other hand it still is hard for them," he said.
With the passage of 20 years, Slepicka admitted that, as a man of faith, he doesn't have an answer as to why the Burnett family would come to a part of a national tragedy but he expects he'll learn the reason one day.
"You wonder sometimes: Why? And someday we’ll know."