Tom Burnett

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Thomas Edward Burnett Jr. (May 29, 1963 – September 11, 2001), also known as Tom Burnett, was the vice president of Thoratec Corporation, a Californian medical devices company. He died age 38 on board United Airlines Flight 93.

Phone calls

Tom Burnett's wife Deena has told the press that he made four phone calls to her on 9/11. Her original FBI interview was less definitive, saying only "3 to 5" (see below), but the "four phone call" version is the one that's passed into history. Each call is described here.

Call 1

Here's the first call as reported by the Tom Burnett Foundation:

And here's how it's reported in Jere Longman's "Among the Heroes":

Call 2

What happened next, according to the Foundation:

And Jere Longman:

Call 3

The Burnett Foundation says the third call went like this:

While Jere Longman tells it this way:

Call 4

Here's the Foundation version of events:

Jere Longman's account is very similar:

9-11 Commission MFR

The memorandum recording Deena Burnett's interview with the 9/11 Commission has been released. This again talks of four calls, the first being a cellphone as it shows up on caller ID, although interestingly that call didn't appear on his cellphone bill.

Cellphone or airfone

The Burnett calls, in particular the first two, have been the subject of some controversy. The argument runs something like this.

The original reports of Burnett's calls, including the account of his wife, Deena, say he used his cell phone to make them.

It's virtually impossible to make cell phone calls from planes flying above 8,000 feet, though. Burnett's first call would have been made at nearer 40,000 feet, and so cannot have come from Flight 93 (at least, not following the flight path as described by the NTSB). The calls must therefore have been faked, or made from somewhere else.

The conspirators realised this problem at some point, and "changed their story". A Flash animation was released at the Moussaoui trial that said he made only three calls, and all by airfone:

Ua93calls burnett.png

There's a core of truth to some of these claims.

As we've seen, the Tom Burnett Foundation transcript does refer specifically to cell phone calls. The original FBI interview with Deena Burnett also talks of "three to five cellphone calls", and includes the following:

In an ideal world we'd be looking for a definitive statement that each of the calls (or, at least, all but one) were made from Burnett's own phone. Instead this leaves us to infer it, which leaves open the possibility of an error or misunderstanding. If Deena Burnett saw Burnett's cellphone number on one or two occasions, for instance, and an airfone on three, then she would recognise the caller ID for the airfone (assuming it provided one). Burnett could then tell the FBI both that she recognised his caller ID, and all but one of the caller IDs were visible, without meaning they all showed his cellphone number.

The 9/11 Commission MFR (above) does seem to imply that she saw his caller ID only once, and also adds a note that the call didn't show up on his cell phone bill.

There are those who will Deena Burnett cannot be mistaken on any details, but then she had just been plunged into the most terrible nightmare: it's a little unrealistic to expect perfect recall. There's a perfectly understandable sign of this when the FBI say Burnett received between three and five calls. In the press (and her book) she's said definitively said four, based on notes she took with times of the calls, but the first reaction here on 9/11 is that she couldn't be sure. If we can't take her later word on how many calls were received, then can we be completely sure about other details?

In any event, there were some reports that Tom Burnett used an airfone long before it became an issue.

Dateline NBC seem to say the second and third calls were by airfone, for instance, although again this isn't defined as clearly as we'd like:

And on the first anniversary of 9/11 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Missouri) wrote:

Press quotes aren't good evidence, of course, as we've no idea how they decided whether a cellphone or airfone was used. But what we can see is that reports of Burnett using airfones didn't originate at the Moussaoui trial.

There's still an apparent clash with that Moussaoui trial evidence, however, which reports only three calls made from Burnett, all by airfone. So does this mean he didn't make any cellphone calls at all? No: here's the relevant part of the Moussaoui trial transcript, where Detective Sergeant Ray Guidetti of the New Jersey State Police and FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force in Newark is answering questions about Tom Burnett's phone calls:

The FBI explicitly said that Tom Burnett may have made "additional cell phone calls" to his wife. They are, therefore, not denying that Deena Burnett could have seen his caller ID. Contradictions still exist: Deena Burnett seems to be clear that the first call was made by cellphone, for instance, while the phone records used in the Moussaoui trial point to it being the last. But again, that's assuming she received only four calls, and the FBI interview showed Burnett herself wasn't sure about that.

But isn't it almost impossible to make cellphone calls from altitude? Well, no. The so-called evidence for this involves testing phones while flying over an urban area, where cellphone base station ranges are relatively short. Base stations out in the countryside can have considerably greater range, so this wasn't a fair test (see AK Dewdney and Project Achilles), and in reality there are multiple accounts supporting the idea that calls can be made from aircraft at cruising altitudes (see Mobiles at altitude).

This poses something of a problem for the "faked calls" theory. If brief cellphone calls really can be made from altitude, then why would the conspirators need to pretend that Burnett had called from an airfone, therefore bringing GTE (airfone providers) into the coverup? What's really more likely: the conspirators decide to fake multiple calls to Deena Burnett instead of just one, and all for no good reason (because if she'd received no calls then events would have continued in precisely the same way), she fails to realise that this is an imposter, the conspirators go to the trouble of faking a caller ID, only later to try and conceal that when it's entirely unnecessary? Or that a young mother, in the worst day of her life, doesn't have perfect recall of a sequence of phone calls?

You decide.

Saw a gun

It's occasionally claimed that Burnett said he saw a gun:

However, as we've seen above, that's not quite what happened. Burnett is actually reported as saying "one of them has a gun". He may have said this because he saw a gun, yes, but it's also possible that he heard one of the hijackers saying he had a gun, or another passenger said they thought one hijacker was armed. It seems unlikely there was an obviously visible weapon as no-one else reported this, but without more information there's no way to be sure.

Incidentally, we'd also suggest this is evidence against the idea that the calls were faked. Because if they were scripted, why would the conspirators have had Burnett say something so inconvenient and out of step with everyone else?