Daughter, in search for birth parents, finds 9-11 hero
ST. PAUL - Mariah Mills thought she knew who her birth father might be after finding out he had probably died, even without immediately learning his name.
Years earlier, after hearing that planes had crashed into the World Trade Center while she was a high school student here, she felt she had lost someone. Now, Mills was even more sure after talking briefly on the phone with her mother, who had seen Mills' parents' names on her daughter's birth certificate, only saying they would talk about it later.
"I remember her saying, 'I think my birth dad is dead," her friend Margaret Nevins recalled in an article published in the Sunday's edition of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "She said, `I think it's that guy who died in 9/11.' I thought she was jumping to conclusions. She was pretty sure about it, though."
And she was right.
Mills' father, who had given Mills up for adoption when he and his girlfriend were in college, was Tom Burnett, a leader of a group that fought back on Flight 93 before it crashed in Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001.
Her father, Walter Mills, shakes his head in disbelief as he recollects her words back on 9/11. "That - what's the word? Premonition? Yes, premonition. That's nothing science could ever explain."
Mills learned about her birth father in 2004 - after she turned 19, the legal age in Minnesota for requesting a birth certificate with names of birth parents - and subsequent DNA tests confirmed that Burnett was her father.
Today, Mills has developed a relationship with Burnett's widow, Deena, her three daughters, husband and stepson, and other members of Burnett's family. She celebrated her birthday with her birth mother, who lives in St. Paul with her husband and two children and asked not to be named for this story.
But learning about her father's death on that infamous day without never having had the chance to meet him was difficult, Mills and her family recalled in the Pioneer Press story.
"The information just hit us like an explosion," said Mills' mother, Cathy. "It was like that plane crashed into our house. The trauma, the shock, the sadness. Everything changed."
Mills and her parents visited Jefferson High School in Bloomington during the spring of 2004 after Mariah found out about her birth parents. Mariah wanted to look up Tom Burnett in his senior yearbook. She found his photo and one of her birth mother, too.
"It was weird to finally look like somebody," Mills said. "I have her eyes, but mostly I look like a Burnett."
She also visited Tom Burnett's grave at Fort Snelling National Cemetery and left flowers there. She spent most of the rest of spring break crying. She locked herself in her bedroom and scarcely ate or slept. Her parents encouraged her to take a leave from DePaul University in Chicago, but she refused.
"It was painful to watch," Cathy Mills said. "She was just traumatized. She would never meet him. And the way he died - such a public death - yet she had no way of knowing about it at the time. A girl she knew at DePaul told her she went to his funeral. Of course, Mariah wasn't there."
Mills didn't go out much after she returned to DePaul to finish her freshman year.
"I felt just numb," she said. "I slept a lot, stared at the wall. I would wake up in the morning and look at myself and see him. His face, his nose and my eyes set like his. I'd waited so long to meet him, and I was two and half years too late. College is about figuring out what you want to do and who you are and, for me, finding out who my parents were was a last missing part of the puzzle."
Deena Burnett was one of the few people who knew Tom had fathered a child given up for adoption. She and Tom met in Atlanta in July 1989 during an afternoon happy hour when she was a Delta Air Lines flight attendant and he was a regional sales manager.
About six weeks into their relationship, Tom told her his girlfriend in college had gotten pregnant, that the two had talked about getting married and had finally decided to give the baby up for adoption.
Deena Burnett was shocked and angry. "Here was my new boyfriend, the one I had been sure I would marry, and I just didn't understand," she said. "I came from southeast Arkansas, where if you had a child out of wedlock, you kept that child."
But she could see that he felt regret and "was still struggling with the fact he had given this child up," she said. Tom made it clear "he hoped to have a relationship with that child at some point, and I would need to be willing to accept that child into our family."
After Mills was given up for adoption, Burnett's family didn't talk about the baby.
But during the last several years of his life, Burnett talked about the baby with his younger sister Mary Jurgens, telling her more than once, "My children and I will meet that child when the time is right."
When it came time for Mariah to meet Burnett's family, she barely slept the night before.
"I've never been so scared," she said. "I wanted to look conservative but nice for my grandparents. Nothing tight or low-cut. I wanted them to be proud I was their relative."
She brought along photographs of herself, family and friends and a bouquet to give them. "I wanted to be Miss Personality - funny, articulate and charismatic," she said. "I wanted to be perfect for them."
The Burnetts invited Mariah to the house of Martha Burnett - Tom Burnett's older sister - for brunch on a spring day in 2004. Jurgens met her at the door, instantly feeling a deep connection to the tall, blond teen with a lovely smile, neatly attired in light blue capris, a black tank top and cardigan, and black flip-flops.
"When I opened the door, it was like looking at my little nieces - but grown up. I was so excited to meet her and yet there was this deep sorrow my brother couldn't be there," Jurgens said. "When I opened the door it was like, 'I know you. You are part of us.'"
The family looked at Mariah's photos and showed her their family pictures and mementos, contained in a big box. The brunch stretched to three hours.
"If only Tommy were still alive," Jurgens said. "I have this vision of what it would have been like for her to meet him, and it just breaks my heart. He was so calm and collected, and it would have been so comfortable to him, meeting her. I pictured my brother flying to Chicago and picking her up for dinner, making it really special. They would have had this fabulous time."
Mills transferred to the University of Minnesota and is entering her senior year. She will spend her first semester studying abroad. Her dream job, she said, would be writing about baseball and covering the Minnesota Twins.
"Before I was even born, my birth dad made a brave decision - to give me a life," Mills said. "It was a selfless act, just like his actions on Flight 93. And, as awful as it was that he died, and I never got to know him, there is good that came out of this. We each sort of get part of Tom back. I get all of them and they get me, his daughter."