Arkansas widow says the loss of her husband on United Flight 93 flight still painful after 20 years

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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Ask Deena Burnett-Bailey when the first fight on the war on terrorism took place and she will tell you it did not take place on the ground in Afghanistan. 

Instead, she will look right at you and say it was in the air, on board United Airlines Flight 93. 

Her husband, Tom Burnett, was on that flight and was among those who decided to fight back to try to take back the plane. 

Now, 20 years later, she said, “the loss was incredibly painful and still is today.” Burnett-Bailey lost her husband. Her three daughters lost a father. 

On September 1, 2001, Tom Burnett boarded United Airlines Flight 93. He was on his way home from an exhaustive business trip when the plane was hijacked.

The terrorist’s plan of crashing the plane somewhere in Washington, D.C. was foiled, though, when Burnett and others came up with a plan to fight back and try and take back the plane.

“I think that the initial surprise of someone fighting back on September 11th and not just standing there watching this happen to them, I think that that was the beginning of a very strong legacy that allowed people to say, ‘Wait a minute, I really don’t have to sit there and watch a wrong being done,’” Burnett-Bailey said.

At the time of the terrorist attacks, Burnett-Bailey’s twin daughters Halley and Madison were just 5 years old and her youngest daughter, Anna Clare, was 3.  Over the past 20 years, she’s offered to take them to see the memorial where their father died a hero, but they chose not to go until this year.

“I think it’s going to be very emotional for all of us. It will be emotional for them because they’ve never been there,” Burnett-Bailey explained. “And they’ll be surrounded by the other family members. They’ll see the chaos that can ensue with a crowd that size on an anniversary.”

She also believes now is the time when the girls should be able to go through this experience.

 “I also think it’s time, it’s time for them to go,” she said. “It’s time for us to experience that.” 

Since the attacks, there have been many defining moments in the war of terrorism, each one having an impact on Burnett-Bailey.

That was especially true in May of 2011 when former President Barack Obama announced that the United States had killed Osama Bin Laden, the same man who was responsible for her husband’s death. 

“I remember listening to the news stories and watching the footage on television and really feeling a sense of relief that I had not felt since Tom died,” Burnett-Bailey said.

When asked if that moment provided her any closure, she explained the relief that came with the news.

“I don’t know that you ever get a sense of closure from losing someone that day,” Burnett-Bailey shared. “But in the moment, I think that that’s probably what I felt.  But it was as if this enormous weight had been lifted.”

Nine years after that development, Pres. Joe Biden announced the war in Afghanistan was over, a declaration that brought up a range of emotions for Burnett-Bailey. 

“Right after we first went over there into Afghanistan, I absolutely had complete empathy and felt the death of every serviceman and servicewoman who died and felt a guilt because I felt like it started on United Airlines Flight 93. That that was the first battle and that it just continued thereafter,” she said.

Burnett-Bailey now wonders if the war in Afghanistan is really over and whether it should be over, especially when hearing that the United States is considering the idea of working with the Taliban on future counterterrorism strikes.

“I’m not familiar with a terrorist organization that is not self-interested, and so to negotiate with a terrorist organization, to allow them any give and take at all, I think is out of line,” she said, adding that it does not seem to fit, “with our Constitution and what we stand for as U.S. citizens.”

Burnett-Bailey and her three daughters will be in Pennsylvania this weekend. On Friday night, Tom Burnett’s cousin will take part in a ceremony along with other family members of Flight 93 where candles will be placed below the names of each passenger and crew member. Then on Saturday, at 10:03 a.m. – the moment Flight 93 crashed – the names of each passenger and crew member will be read.

Anna Claire Burnett will have the honor of reading her father’s name to the nation. 

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