Aug 30, 2006

Actions in a Crisis--United Flight 93

I've often been fascinated by stories of people who exceed what is normal. Sometimes, a person wants to meet the high expectations of others and performs exceptionally well. Alternatively, excessively high expectations may lead a person to say, "What's the use" and fail to try. The most interesting situation is when persons perform great feats of bravery, strength, or endurance in a challenging crisis.
A very long time ago as a seven-year old, I used to walk over a mile home from Catholic grade school. The road led up and down over the hilly terrain above the Missouri River, finally ending up by a roadside creek. One afternoon, I decided to leave the road and take a short cut across our pasture. Bad choice! The milk cow that we had at time was not friendly. Once she saw me, she charged and I ran toward a fence on the upper edge of a deep ditch along the road. The ditch was filled with weeds and debris, and that was where I landed after jumping the fence.
Later when the cow was elsewhere, I went back to the fence to see how high it was. Amazingly, the top of the barb wire fence was above my waist. I remember setting up a rope to practice jumping the same height--and at that age I couldn't do it again. Conclusion: I could do very difficult things only when I had to.
On my first real job, I worked with a Chinese man who had immigrated to this country. He told me the Japanese bombed China during World War II, and thousands of Chinese took refuge in a large cave. Most of the people in the cave, except a few at the entrance, died because of inadequate oxygen. My co-worker also told of the lack of food during those times. I asked him how people survived in those terribly difficult situations and whether soft Americans would ever be able to withstand such suffering. His response was that any people who want to survive will endure whatever suffering is necessary and make extraordinary efforts to survive.
Now, the REAL story
Thomas Burnett, a passenger on United Flight 93 that crashed on 9-11, is an excellent example of how a strong person can become a hero in a crisis. His wife has published a book, Fighting Back: Living Life Beyond Ourselves, that tells the story of how her husband prepared for and responded to his moment in time. Deena Burnett writes about her four cell phone conversations with her husband during the hijacking, which culminated with her husband's assurance that he was "going to do something" to thwart the hijackers.
A year before 9-11 Jim Burnett told his wife he'd been attending Mass daily to try to understand a message from God that had "something to do with the White House." He told her he hadn't figured it out, "but I know it will impact a great number of people," she wrote in her book, "She writes "God must have had a good chuckle that day, because my response was, 'He wants you to run for president.'"

Tom Burnett died in the crash of the United Airlines flight in rural Pennsylvania. The plane went down 20 minutes short of the hijackers' presumed target, either the U.S. Capitol or the White House. His wife has established a foundation under his name.

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