Minnesota woman shares the story of her brother who was among those who fought back on United Flight 93

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Even on this 9/11 anniversary, Martha Burnett Pettee’s smile broadens when she talks about her younger brother.

"Tom was a whip-smart, funny, confident, deeply philosophical guy,” she said. “He had big thoughts, big dreams, and big ideas … and wasn’t afraid to try things.”

There is love here. And pride. And sorrow.

“I am constantly surprised at how painful the day is, every year,” Pettee said.

That’s because Tom Burnett, a 38-year old husband and father of three girls, lost his life on United Flight 93.

"My whole family, along with other families from United 93 listened to the cockpit voice recorder,” Pettee said. “Unbelievable to hear his voice.”

The recording documents how passengers on the ill-fated flight fought back against terrorists who initially took control.

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"We heard his voice, and I know for a fact that the passengers on that plane — and my brother was among them — charged that cockpit,” Pettee says.

Voices of courage and defiance.

"Actually surprisingly comforting, because nobody was cowering or hiding,” she said. “They were on a mission. He delivered a battle cry.”

From quarterbacking the football team at Thomas Jefferson High School in Bloomington to his work as vice president and CEO of Thoratec Corporation, a California medical device company, Pettee says she’s not surprised her brother acted with leadership and courage.

"He was a part of something that on that day gave a lot of people hope,” she said. “That there were Americans who fought back."

Now, nearly two decades after that terrible day, the Tom Burnett Advanced Leadership Program at the University of Minnesota is mentoring and teaching young people.

More than 250 students have taken part in the program — a kind of leadership legacy.

“Just rippling the idea of what makes good leadership out in the world today is a pretty exciting thing,” Pettee said. “Young people are amazing, and Tom would have been so excited about this program. It’s about these students growing, exploring what their strengths are, making the most of them.”

Burnett is laid to rest at Fort Snelling National Cemetery.

Pettee calls 9/11 a shared sorrow for everyone — a shared trauma.

She says she hopes Americans will look back on that day and remember how people were united in grief, in solidarity and in celebrating the nation’s strengths.

Despite the pain and suffering her family has endured, she says she’s also incredibly grateful.

"So many humans, so many individuals from all over the world have reached out to my family and to me, to offer condolences,” Pettee says. “We were just surrounded by light and love and have been for nineteen years. People are good."