For as little apparent as there is to link Stoystown, Pennsylvania, and Halley, Arkansas, they share a lot in common. Both communities were founded by fighting frontiersmen (Daniel Stoy, veteran of the Revolutionary War, and John J. Bowie, eldest brother of fallen Alamo hero Jim Bowie, respectively), and both boast the markings of their blue-collar, rural pedigree in farming and falling population.
Mostly what the two hamlets share is a nagging anonymity and a footprint on the map that grows fainter by the year. For most, that is, save Deena Burnett Bailey.
For her, the two villages represent the alpha and omega of her existence: Halley, in Desha County, whence she was born, and Stoystown, where a chapter of her life died with her husband, Tom, in the most unnatural, unfathomable way. Twenty years ago, this month — September 11.
“My generation thought of heroes as mythological or sports-oriented; we didn’t have an idea as to what a true hero was,” she says, her mind drifting back to the Pennsylvania field where her husband perished aboard United Airlines Flight 93.
“It wasn’t that those heroes didn’t exist, they just weren’t talked about until 9/11,” she says. “To tell the story of a person putting their life on the line for someone else, that can’t be overlooked.”
* * *
On the clear, bright morning of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, United Flight 93 took off late from Newark, New Jersey, bound for San Francisco. The plane was less than a third full, which must have been a welcomed sight to the early-bird passengers — more room to stretch out, to read, to catnap on the way.
Just four minutes into the air, the saddest chapter of American history since Pearl Harbor — and the touchpoint of a generation — was playing out behind them. At 8:46 a.m. the hijacked American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Seventeen minutes later, before a stunned nation’s very eyes, United Airlines Flight 175 gashed the South Tower of the World Trade Center like a scythe, rupturing the steel skyscraper with an aortic spurt of crimson and orange flames.
The towers would heave smoke like spent Roman candles until, after nearly an hour, collapsing 29 minutes apart, leaving a grotesque cavity in the Manhattan skyline and a crater down below.
By that time, word had spread of American Airlines 77 crashing into the west-facing wall of the Pentagon, leaving the punch-drunk nation to wonder what was yet to come. The answer came in just more than half an hour when United Airlines Flight 93 plummeted into a tranquil field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, at 563 miles per hour, igniting 7,000 gallons of jet fuel.
Later, the world would learn of the poignancy and heroism displayed on United Flight 93. Passengers used in-flight phones to report the hijacking and, upon learning of the other attacks, to say goodbye. They formed a plan to take back the plane and avert further mass murder, Tom Burnett in the middle of the action to the end.
Talking to him for the last time before the doomed flight went down, Deena recalls him saying, “We have to do something. We can’t wait for the authorities. … It’s up to us. I think we can do it.”
And at last, “I know we’re all going to die. There are three of us who are going to do something about it. I love you, honey.”
Later that day, a parish priest would visit the Burnett home, sitting across from the shell-shocked mother of three as she struggled to grasp her new reality.
“It was a typical visit with a priest after a tragedy,” she says today. “I remember him saying, ‘We have great programs for widows, so you’ll be supported.’ And I don’t know what he said after that. The only word I heard was ‘widow,’ and suddenly I realized: I’m a widow, I’m a widow. I’m 37 and a widow. He is not coming back, and I am alone. This weight fell on me with one word.”
* * *
Despite relatively pedestrian backgrounds — he, a medical technology executive from Minnesota, and she, the girl off a cotton farm in southeast Arkansas — Deena and Tom’s relationship unfolded in ways that were out of the ordinary. They met when she was out with a group of girlfriends, and he was solo at a hotel bar in Marietta, Georgia.
“We were about 25 girls going out on the town, and my roommate asked him if he wanted to join us,” Deena laughs. “What single man would say no to that?
“A week later, he asked my roommate and me over to grill out, and she couldn’t go. I told him I’d meet him at a restaurant, so we met at an Applebee’s and enjoyed each other’s company and closed the restaurant down that night. After that, he asked me on a proper date, and the rest is history.”
It would be three years before Tom would pop the question, which suited Deena just fine. She could see immediately what there was to love about him; the rest would unfold in its appointed time.
“He proposed to me; he said, ‘I love you,’ first,” she says. “I’m one of those girls who always waited and never pushed. I enjoyed our time together and never put demands on our relationship.
“He was a very family-oriented man; he talked about his sisters and parents; he was Christian; he was ambitious about work. He was very nice-looking, articulate and smart. He checked a lot of my boxes.”
The couple would settle in California, welcome three daughters and form a routine that included Tom’s frequent traveling for work.
“He loved being a dad; we would have had more children had he lived,” Deena says. “When he was in town, typically on Saturday mornings, he would take them to the park and spend one-on-one time with them. He was a great dad, loved playing with them, dancing with them, talking on the phone.
“He always said he looked forward to them being a little older, past the stage of giving constant care, because he thought he would be the dad that would coach. He planned our future and would assign books to them to read, and we would discuss them at the dinner table.”
Tom and Deena would discuss their own future as well, the kind of planning she would be grateful for following his death. She said she never got a direct foreshadowing of what was to come, but looking back, two conversations stand out.
“Earlier that summer, he asked me, ‘Have you wondered why I haven’t been coming home lately for lunch?’ I just assumed he was working, because he was rarely in the office,” Deena says. “He said, ‘I’ve been going to daily Mass. I feel like God is trying to tell me something, almost like preparing me for something, so I thought if I spent more time in prayer — specifically in church — I could figure it out. I just know it involves a lot of people.’
“The only other time I felt something was going to happen to him was when our youngest, Anna Clare, was born. My mom came into the room and made the comment, ‘I guess you guys will have to have one more so you can have your son.’ I said, ‘No Mom, God’s not going to give us a son. God knows I can’t raise Tom’s son alone.’ She dismissed it as a postpartum comment from someone who was out of her mind, but I remember being at peace knowing I was going to have to raise those girls alone. I could do girls, but I couldn’t do a personality as strong as Tom’s son would be.”
* * *
Grief runs on its own schedule; suffocating and immobilizing one moment, illuminating and galvanizing the next. Deena felt these and a thousand other facets that changed like a prism twirling in the sun.
“The first height of emotion, outside of grief, that I felt was realizing life was changing and I had to figure out what my role was going to be,” she says. “There were a lot of decisions made within 48 hours of his death. I realized, without Tom’s income, we couldn’t stay in the house we were living in, and we needed to get back to Arkansas and my family for a real support system.”
By mid-summer 2002, Deena had moved the family back to Little Rock and settled into a different kind of routine. Raising the girls — 5-year-old twins and a 3-year-old at the time of the crash — was challenging, especially once they started exhibiting their father’s personality and the bullheadedness she thought she’d avoided by not having a son.
“Oh my goodness; my three girls are forces to be reckoned with. God really does have a sense of humor,” Deena says. “Tom’s imprint was on them the day they were born; he didn’t have to hang around their whole life for people to see they were his daughters. Something my husband used to say, ‘A colt too easily broken never makes a good horse,’ and that got me through a lot of parental challenges trying to mold their behavior.
“The girls learned at a very young age, as soon as they could speak, how to articulate their thoughts and present why they wanted something. That was how they were raised, and boy, it can really come back to bite you because there comes a point where they are better at it than you are. Headstrong is an understatement; they can debate, argue, formulate their thoughts and articulate to you why their thoughts are the way they are. They were never easy, but they were worth it, let me tell you.”
She readily admits the journey was not taken entirely alone. She leaned on her family as she got herself back into the workforce, while friends and fellow parishioners at Christ the King Catholic Church in Little Rock took turns lending a fatherly influence. Even today, she chokes up describing how much those gestures meant.
“As far as not having [Tom] around for the things kids share with parents, like father-daughter dances that the girls watched their friends attend, we had a beautiful circle of friends whose dads always invited them along,” she says, sobbing. “Having the community, church and family nearby, it had a huge impact on my ability to raise them and on who they are today.”
* * *
The fallen of 9/11 are venerated as heroes but largely forgotten as individuals. The sheer number of casualties and the passage of time has, for the general populace, conscribed them to the collective, celebrated en masse as true American martyrs.
For the families, it’s different. Every September, as the nation remembers and newsreels replay, the lives they have grown into freeze and unspool into that day.
To Deena, that’s not altogether bad. For all of the personal pain that flickers to life with the images on the screen, it’s a morality play the nation must retell if only to remember its nobler elements and how it should inspire us today.
“I think, other than the timeline of parenting, what stands out about the past 20 years is how we’ve changed as a nation, how we’ve changed as citizens of this great country and really just who are we today versus who were we then and how we get back to that,” she says. “It makes me sad to think how unified we were then and how divided we are now. Will it take another event like 9/11 to see what we have in common? Will it take a tragedy to allow us to be proud of our nation and the history we have within this nation? I think that’s really what the 20th anniversary brings to my mind, more than anything else.”
She is philosophical about the life that sprang from the rubble of that day. Her children grew up to start jobs and have lives of their own. She herself struggled to her feet, remarried, moved on. A void remains that cannot, will not fill, but its edges have worn smoother with time.
“There are times that I offer a prayer to him and say, ‘I know you’re listening and watching; I could really use some help,’” Deena says. “Of course, all of those prayers are about the girls; even with them now as adults, there are times I don’t know what to say. It’s something that calms me down. Somehow, he’s helping me think a little more clearly.
“The most valuable thing Tom gave me was his love and his commitment of marriage. He gave me his lifetime.”
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