On September 11, 2001, Burnett was a passenger on board United Airlines Flight 93, which was hijacked as part of the September 11 attacks. He died when the plane crashed into a field in Stonycreek Township near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Thomas Burnett and his sisters grew up in Bloomington, Minnesota, the son of Thomas Burnett Sr. and Beverly Burnett. He attended Ridgeview Elementary School, then Olson Middle School. At Thomas Jefferson Senior High School, where he wore jersey No. 11 and then No. 10, he led the Jaguars to the state finals as their starting quarterback in 1980. He graduated in 1981.
Burnett studied economics at Saint John's University in Minnesota, where he was a quarterback on the football team. After two years, an injury shortened his football career and he transferred to the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. He was named president of the Alpha Kappa Psi fraternity, then later graduated with a B.S. degree in Finance. He went on to earn a Master of Business Administration at Pepperdine University.
In 1996 Burnett joined Thoratec Corporation, a medical devices company, as vice president of sales and marketing. In November 1999, he was promoted to senior vice president and chief operating officer.
In 1985, Burnett became the biological father to a daughter who was given up for adoption. Her name is Mariah Mills. By 1989, Burnett had met his future wife, Deena, in Atlanta, where she had just completed flight attendant training for Delta Air Lines. They married in April 1992. They had three daughters, Halley, Anna Claire and Madison, and lived in San Ramon, California, where she was a stay-at-home mother after she first became pregnant in 1995. Thomas Burnett had attended church daily in the year prior to the September 11 attacks, attempting to address a sense of foreboding which he had expressed to his wife.
On September 11, 2001, while on board United Airlines Flight 93, Burnett sat next to passenger Mark Bingham. Burnett called his wife, Deena, after hijackers took control of the plane. He made several phone calls to her beginning at 09:30:32 from rows 24 and 25, though he was assigned a seat in row four. Burnett explained that the plane had been hijacked by men claiming to have a bomb. He also said that a passenger had been stabbed with a knife and that he believed the bomb threat was a ruse to control the passengers. During his second call to her, she relayed to him that of the attacks on the World Trade Center and he replied that the hijackers were "talking about crashing this plane. ... Oh my God. It's a suicide mission." He began pumping her for information about the attacks, interrupting her from time to time to tell the others nearby what she was saying. Then he hung up. Upon learning of the situation, Deena, a former flight attendant, recalled her training and urged Burnett to sit quietly and not draw attention to himself. However, Burnett instead informed her that he and three other passengers, Mark Bingham, Todd Beamer and Jeremy Glick, were forming a plan to take the plane back from the hijackers, and leading other passengers in this effort. He ended his last call by saying, "Don't worry, we're going to do something." Burnett and several other passengers stormed the cockpit, foiling the hijackers' plan to crash the plane into the White House or Capitol Building. The cockpit voice recorder captured Burnett yelling, "Roll it!", possibly referring to using the food cart. To prevent the passengers from regaining control of the plane, the hijackers crashed it in a Pennsylvania field, killing all 44 people on board.
Burnett is buried at Fort Snelling National Cemetery in Minnesota. Funeral and burial services were held on May 24, 2002.
On September 14, 2001, the Jefferson High School football team wore on their helmets the number 10, in honor of Burnett, who wore that number when he played at Jefferson High.
In March 2002, Bradley Street, a small street in Pleasanton, California, that runs outside the headquarters of Thoratec Corp. where Burnett worked, was renamed Tom Burnett Lane.
On September 11, 2002, the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, dedicated the Tom Burnett 9/11 Memorial near the Nordstrom Court, with Burnett's loved ones in attendance.
In 2002, Burnett, along with Beamer, Bingham and Glick, were posthumously awarded the Arthur Ashe Courage Award.
A post office in his hometown of Bloomington, Minnesota, was renamed the Thomas E. Burnett, Jr. Post Office.
Every May, Oak Grove Middle School students volunteer for a Thomas Burnett Day of Service. At Jefferson High School, Burnett's former teammates created a memorial to honor him situated between two football practice fields. The school's hallways display photos of Burnett and his jersey, which was retired on September 5, 2002, at Bloomington Arena during the game between Bloomington Jefferson and their rival, Bloomington Kennedy. A memorial scholarship was started in his honor, and a collection of his favorite books was placed in the school's media center. A white oak tree was planted in front of Saint Edward's Catholic Church in Bloomington, where Burnett was confirmed, and where his funeral was held. A large fieldstone in front of the tree is inscribed with the passage from the Book of John 15:13: "There is no greater love than to lay down one's life for one's friends".
In 2004, Burnett's biological daughter Mariah Mills turned 19 and became legally entitled to access information about her birth parents. She learned that Burnett was her father, and she eventually formed a relationship with Deena Burnett and with her half-sisters. Deena gave Mills an unfinished letter that Burnett had written for her in 1987.
In 2008, Thoratec Europe Limited (Thoratec Corporation's European distribution arm based in Great Britain) gave its new Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, headquarters facility the name Burnett House.
In mid-2002, Deena Burnett and her daughters moved from San Ramon back to Little Rock, Arkansas, near where she grew up and where her family still lives. In 2006, Deena married Rodney Bailey, a divorced Little Rock insurance agent with a teenage son, that she met in early 2004. She co-authored a book with Anthony Giombetti entitled Fighting Back: Living Life Beyond Ourselves. The book is published by Advantage Inspirational and was released in July 2006. Fighting Back recounts the difficulties in getting the FBI to release cockpit voice recorder tapes from United 93 to the public, and includes Deena's thoughts on the nature of heroism.
In February 2003, the California State Assembly renamed the Fostoria Way overcrossing over Interstate 680 in San Ramon the Thomas E. Burnett Jr. Memorial Bridge in his honor.
At the National 9/11 Memorial, Burnett is memorialized at the South Pool, on Panel S-68, along with other passengers from Flight 93.
On September 11, 2011, the tenth anniversary of the attacks, the Bloomington Crime Prevention Association sponsored the first annual Tom Burnett Jr. Hometown Heroes Celebration at the Hilton Mall of America. The event featured a keynote address was given by Senator Amy Klobuchar, and the presentation of the Tom Burnett Jr. Remember Award would be given to citizens who demonstrate leadership, selflessness, and a commitment to others. James Caauwe, President of the Association, explained the event thus: "We wanted to remember Tom Burnett Jr. and the sacrifices he made, but not only the sacrifices that he made on 9/11 but who he was as a person. We looked at those qualities that he had of leadership and of community service and recognized people that are doing that today."
The anniversary was also marked with the dedication of Hero's Garden, a memorial that stands in Burnett's honor at Pepperdine University's Graziadio School of Business and Management, where Burnett received his MBA.